This article has been updated.
Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio, sent a letter Saturday to City Manager Erik Walsh to gauge the City’s interest in hosting the Republican National Convention at the Alamodome in August.
Sources close to the process said RNC representatives have begun informing various partners that Jacksonville, Florida is getting the deal.
Matej did not mention the current social unrest that has brought daily Black Lives Matter protests to the streets of San Antonio during the past 10 days in her letter, but emphasized that the tourism and hospitality industry has been “particularly ravaged” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But whether Visit San Antonio wants to seriously pursue the RNC would be up to the nonprofit’s board, Walsh told the Rivard Report on Tuesday.
“The letter didn’t really have any details,” Walsh said. “Before there’s any substantive conversation with the mayor, the Council, or the City – security requirements and financial commitments [would need to be identified].”
In a written response to Matej, Walsh said, “If you feel there is an opportunity for [Visit San Antonio] to explore the possibility of hosting the Republican National Convention, or any other convention, you should take the direction of your Board. This convention will be vastly different from other recent nominating conventions given the events will be split with Charlotte. I’m assuming there is a very tight timeline.”
In May 2018, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and several City Council members declined to pursue the convention, citing concerns about the cost of hosting and managing the anticipated protests that, like the convention itself, could draw thousands to San Antonio. City officials were criticized for making the decision not to pursue the bid behind closed doors.
“This is going to be a transparent conversation,” Walsh said.
The RNC has not contacted Visit San Antonio regarding a new bid, a Visit San Antonio spokesman said.
“But this is a new day and a new environment,” Matej wrote. “Pursuing significant meeting opportunities like this will play a large role in [the industry’s] revitalization.”
After President Donald Trump pulled at least the larger, more public elements of the convention out of Charlotte, North Carolina last week because Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper refused to lift social distancing guidelines, business owners and stakeholders started asking Visit San Antonio if it would now pursue the event which runs Aug. 24-27, Matej told the Rivard Report.
“There was so much media attention” given to Trump’s withdrawal from Charlotte she said, which rekindled this conversation. “Looking at the devastation of our industry, could this be something that helps kickstart [the industry]? There are so many unknowns right now, that’s the hard part. I don’t know how the meeting [and the needs] have changed. … We’re investigating that right now.”
Visit San Antonio estimates that cancelations of major conferences and meetings — about 36 of them – have had a more than $140 million impact on the city’s tourism bottom line.
The Republican National Convention is projected to attract approximately 20,000 people and generate more than $50 million for the host community,” Matej wrote.
While the economic benefit and event size may change, she said, the Alamodome’s capacity is more than 70,000 – large enough to host a convention of that size while complying with the 50-percent rule.
But before formally researching what the GOP wants out of this secondary city’s application, Matej said, she needs a nod of approval from City officials because the City would play a major role in coordinating an event of that scale and prominence.
“I see no signs that this is a serious possibility,” Nirenberg said Tuesday via text. “If we get a real proposal, I’ll let you know.”
There is very little wiggle room in the City’s budget amid its response to the coronavirus and a $200 million decrease in revenues.
“Our restructured 2020 budget was specifically designed so we can rebound with the visitor industry at the appropriate time,” Walsh said.
Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville have emerged as top contenders to host the main components of the Republican National Convention, including President Trump’s nomination acceptance speech, as those states have Republican governors whose restrictions on large social gatherings have further relaxed and face coverings are not required.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott moved the state into “phase three” of its re-opening plan last week, which allows for meeting venues to open to 50 percent capacity.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson indicated he was “strongly concerned” about plans to host the RNC there despite Georgia Governor Brian Kemp saying he was eager to show what Savannah had to offer as representatives from the Republican National Committee, including GOP convention president and CEO Marcia Lee Kelly, toured the Savannah Convention Center earlier this week. Jacksonville is considered the frontrunner to host the RNC and according to Jacksonville TV station, First Coast News, the city’s largest downtown hotels already are booked at capacity in anticipation of a decision. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry seemed more open to the idea last week, noting it was a way “to get back to business in our city.”
“I would say to the people that are concerned, we’re going to have all the safety protocols in place.,” Curry told News4Jax on June 4. “But I’m not going to make economic decisions for this community out of fear. If we were doing that, heck, we would probably all still be in our homes right now because COVID-19 is still with us.”
Jacksonville also has been embroiled in protests, some violent, related to the civil unrest caused by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. San Antonio also has experienced protests, but most have been peaceful.
Republican National Committee officials also have visited Nashville, Tennessee, and are considering New Orleans; Orlando, Florida; Las Vegas; and Dallas.
Several media reports state a decision on the convention site or sites is expected at the end of this week.
The earliest Council could vote on whether it puts a bid in for the RNC would be next week, Walsh said.
“Visit San Antonio, we are apolitical,” Matej said. “There were a lot of concerns of what would be the cost from a public safety component [in 2018]. … For this conference or anything similar we would seek what the opinions are of our partners [including law enforcement].”