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Jennifer Robison

No room in Las Vegas for political conventions

19 February 2010

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- At least we know the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is nonpartisan.

The authority, which markets Las Vegas as a destination for leisure and business travelers alike, has rejected bids from both the Democratic and Republican parties to hold their 2012 national conventions here, and it's unlikely the city could handle either convention in the foreseeable future, authority officials said Thursday.

The conventions would mean big business for the local economy: The 2008 Democratic National Convention, held in Denver, drew 50,000 attendees, while the 2008 Republican National Convention, in St. Paul, Minn., had more than 45,000 attendees.

But the authority told organizers of both political powwows in January that the city's convention centers are simply too full to house the groups. Separately, a spokesman for the authority told the Review-Journal that the political conventions pose onerous booking requirements that local trade-show centers can't accommodate.

"Essentially, we'd be losing business we already have booked and that has been in the destination for a number of years," said authority spokesman Vince Alberta. "It comes down to a business decision. While we are grateful, and we appreciate the consideration and that we're top of mind, it really comes down to the fact that we're full."

Las Vegas can't accept either convention because both groups require that the venues they book have several hundred thousand square feet of empty space 90 days in advance of their late-summer conventions.

The parties want the venues vacant so they can upgrade technologies and control security efforts, Alberta said. That means the authority and other local convention-center operators would have to break leases with several big shows that have already booked space in 2012, beginning with the International Council of Shopping Centers meeting in May and ending with the Men's Apparel Guild in California show in August.

The shopping-center show brings in 25,000 attendees and offers a nongaming economic impact of $39 million, and MAGIC, which is in town this week as well, is scheduled to attract 75,000 attendees and bring the city $115 million in nongaming economic impact.

Alberta said it's not the first time the authority has spurned the two major political conventions, and officials in Orlando, Fla., also recently turned away the conventions.

"This (the booking requirement) is a challenge for any of the top destinations that host meetings," Alberta said.

National and local officials for parties were not available to comment by press time on why they need meeting space cleared for three months before a convention.

But, state lawmakers weren't pleased to hear about the difficulties involved in bringing party conventions here.

Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, said he understood there might be concerns including scheduling conflicts, but he didn't "like the idea that we would refuse it out of hand."

And Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, said it's unfortunate the conventions won't visit Las Vegas, because they'd be good for business.

"I think it would be wonderful. We're talking about filling up hotels and filling up restaurants," said Cegavske, who attended the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008. "(Delegates) buy souvenirs. They find out about local museums. It would be good for Las Vegas, and I thought that was what we were trying to do here -- improve the economy."

Cegavske said she couldn't understand why either convention would need 90 days' lead time. She said she'd never heard of the requirement, but she added that she'd ask Republican officials what's behind the demand.

"If the president comes, do we need to clear things out 90 days beforehand? I would expect you could verify if a building is clean in so many hours," she said.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who chairs the authority, said hosting either convention would be "phenomenal" for Southern Nevada, but it would be impossible to bring the meetings here given logistical complications.

"Basically, we would be shutting down the city's convention business for a substantial period of time," Goodman said.

Las Vegas doesn't need political conventions to legitimize it as a mainstream meeting destination, Goodman said, but the nominating ceremonies would be a boon to the city because they'd bring a whole new niche to the local market.

Goodman has long advocated for a sports arena downtown, and he said developing such a venue would make hosting a national party convention more feasible.

The spurned political bids came to light Thursday at a press event that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., held in North Las Vegas.

Reid stopped by Southern Nevada Paving to discuss a jobs bill pending before Congress. During a question-and-answer session with the audience, an attendee asked Reid why the Democrats haven't held their national convention here.

Reid said the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority didn't "want it," because the agency had booked other big trade shows and couldn't accommodate the political conference.

Reid prefaced his comments by discussing two separate Las Vegas-related comments by President Obama. Obama told a town-hall audience in Indiana a year ago that companies receiving federal bailouts shouldn't plan junkets to Las Vegas on the taxpayers' dime. And earlier this month, he urged families saving for college to stash their cash instead of visiting Las Vegas.

Reid said that Obama and his entourage "love Nevada."

"We all say things that don't come out right, and he loves Nevada," Reid said. "He came here 22 times during his campaign."

Obama arrived in Las Vegas late Thursday for a daylong visit. The president's agenda today includes a public town-hall session, a meeting with workers at CityCenter and a closed-door session with members of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.