KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nearly 40 years have passed since the national political spotlight last shone on this city, when Ronald Reagan tried unsuccessfully to oust President Gerald Ford at a contested Republican National Convention.
Yet Kansas City now is making an aggressive push to host the Olympics of politics — the 2016 Republican National Convention — against a field of competitors that includes the tourist destinations of Las Vegas and New Orleans, the southern hotspots of Dallas and Phoenix and other cities such as Denver with more recent political conventions on their resumes.
What Kansas City lacks in glitz, it's trying to make up for with heart.
"We are a city that really wants this convention," said Troy Stremming, a local casino executive who is co-chairman of the Kansas City RNC 2016 Task Force. "It's not just another convention of 50,000 participants in the city of Las Vegas, it would be THE convention for Kansas City and this region."
A delegation from Kansas City plans to personally deliver the city's bid documents Wednesday to Republican headquarters in Washington — capping a campaign that began nearly a year ago when it put on a party for the Republican National Committee.
Representatives from the aspiring host cities are to make formal presentations March 3 to Republican officials. A committee then will narrow the list to several finalists for onsite visits later this year. But the winner might not be chosen until early 2015, said Sharon Day, co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.
At this point, "there is no front-runner," she said.
When Kansas City last hosted the Republican National Convention in 1976, the event was held in the newly opened Kemper Arena on the banks of the Missouri River, and attendees flew in to the new Kansas City International Airport. Today, Kemper Arena is a seldom-used shell targeted for potential demolition and city officials are bemoaning the need for a new, modern airport.
Yet downtown Kansas City has recently undergone a $6 billion renovation anchored by the new Sprint Center arena, which sold more tickets to live entertainment events last year than its counterparts in Dallas, Phoenix, Denver or Las Vegas. The arena sits across from a new restaurant and bar district, near a renovated luxury hotel and a short walk from a massive convention center that spans eight city blocks. That whole downtown area is plugged into a newly upgraded grid for telecommunications, power, water and sewer.
An interstate highway passes right by the Sprint Center and convention hall. Although Kansas City currently lacks a commuter train, officials insist that a finely orchestrated network of chartered buses can get everyone to the convention in about 30 minutes from hotels on either side of the Missouri-Kansas border. Being located in the center of the country means attendees from both the east and west coasts can fly to Kansas City within three hours.
Political considerations, such as the region's Republican bona fides or battleground status, aren't part of the discussion, Day said. But the city's logistics are a key part to selecting a convention site.
"We look at every hotel, every venue, the wiring, the security — you basically tear the city apart to make sure that they can really deliver the best possible opportunity for our presidential candidate," said Day, who was on the 2008 site selection committee that chose St. Paul, Minn.
Kansas City's arena can hold 19,246 people — topping the Republicans' requirement of 18,000 — and is ringed with a double deck of suites. This past weekend, the arena was transformed with tons of dirt for a professional bull riding event. In the coming month, it will host country and rock concerts, an equestrian show, the Big 12 men's college basketball championship and a Disney on Ice production.
The Sprint Center arena is managed by Brenda Tinnen, who was an executive at the Staples Center in Los Angeles when it hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
"This is a big event in what I would call a smaller, non-traditional market for the political conventions," said Tinnen, who also is chairwoman of the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association and vice-chairwoman of the Missouri Tourism Commission.
About 200 people attended a fundraiser last week as part of Kansas City's commitment to raising the millions of dollars necessary to help sponsor the Republican convention. Among the contributions was $10,000 left over from the 1976 convention.
The quest to win the 2016 GOP convention is perplexing to some Kansas City area residents.
"People go to Florida ... they go to Scottsdale ... and to Chicago," said John Hewitt, a retired airline pilot dining at a downtown Kansas City restaurant. "Kansas City seems like more of just a typical Midwestern city to me."
But others view this as Kansas City's chance to shine — much like the Olympics focused attention on the generally unheard-of city of Sochi, Russia — and to shed the rural stereotypes that still have some truth.
"People don't understand how beautiful this city actually is until they've been here," said Patricia Bricker, a Kansas City children's author who was buying a ticket to a bull riding event. "They think of it as a little cow town."
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