First Person: reflecting on a successful RNC in Cleveland

Two years ago, the Republican National Committee announced Cleveland would be the host city for its 2016 Convention. The preparations, speculations and anticipation are all fading away as stories both local and from across the country came to the same conclusion: Cleveland was a great host.

That conclusion was so unanimous that some publications even had to eat their words.

For two years I have written stories for Fresh Water about how Cleveland prepared to welcome 50,000 people for the RNC. I served on the Host Committee’s editorial board, curating stories from area agencies that put the city’s best foot forward.
Over this time, I couldn’t help but wonder how we would fare as a city. Was the security plan adequate? Would people enjoy themselves? What would visitors think of Cleveland? How would the locals get involved?
Last week I witnessed the execution of a well-run, thoughtful plan that not only kept everyone safe, but offered up what the Washington Post called a block party. That’s how we roll in the CLE.
Safe and Sound with Friendly Security
I admit, I was a little nervous about heading down to cover the activity in Public Square and on East 4th Street. But the first morning I arrived on Public Square, within minutes a police bicycle brigade of probably 20 cops whizzed past me – each taking the time to say “good morning” as they passed.
Even when one of the horses brushed my shoulder as a mounted police unit trotted past on another day, the officer took the time to turn back and say, “Sorry about that.”

The approximately 5,200 law enforcement personnel from around Ohio and the country, paired with Cleveland’s police force, made for what could have been a daunting presence. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by how they set the tone – relaxed, outgoing and friendly while still keeping a close eye on everything going on.
I enjoyed checking out various police arm patches to see where they were from: Patrol persons from Indiana State Police, Ohio Highway Patrol as well as law enforcement from California, Michigan seemed to be everywhere.

The police posed for photos, danced with attendees and even splashed in the fountain at Public Square. There were no huge riots and mobs, despite plenty of protesters, and when tensions mounted, a tight security plan called for separating feuding groups and barricading unruly crowds off until tempers cooled and the situation diffused.
I did not personally witness any trouble, but acting as the command center of sorts for the Fresh Water team with an ear on the RNC police scanner and an eye on Cleveland Police’s Twitter feed, I alerted our team in the field regarding protests, flare-ups and the occasional dispersal order. I think Erin O’Brien and Bob Perkoski witnessed just about every situation that turned ugly.
Only about two dozen people were arrested during the entire four days.
I decided to take Uber downtown each day. The drivers freely gave their opinions on their business volume during the convention. On the way downtown early one morning, my driver, Kimberly, boasted that she had been shuttling a PBS reporter down from Beachwood.
But Kimberly also said business had been slow, as Uber had a whopping total of 1,400 on call – some of whom were brought in from other cities. She said normally there are a couple hundred in the area and drivers were competing for fares because demand just wasn’t there.
Another driver, Rickie, who was easy to spot because his van had a giant “Uber Rickie” decal on the side, bragged that his business was good because he knew how to get riders close to Public Square. He claimed to have had 500 fares in the one month he’d been driving for Uber – 300 riders alone during the convention.
“They just don’t know what they’re doing,” he said of his competition in taxi cabs. “Plus, I got an XL. I moved a lot of people, a lot of delegates, around.” He then dropped me on Huron, just shy of where it was fenced off and inaccessible.
An Assorted Group
It certainly did feel like a festival downtown. Vendors were lined up everywhere, selling everything from bobble head Trump dolls and campaign pins to red baseball hats with the “Make America Great Again” slogan and anti-Clinton T-shits.
One vendor selling hats and pins told me his business had been steady, adding, “There are two types of republicans buying: The git 'er done folks and the classier group."
The newly-designed Public Square was getting its first true test, with hundreds of people roaming, lounging and preaching. Speakers tried to get their messages out over microphones from a podium, but most people weren’t listening and it was hard to hear them.
Despite the heavy law enforcement presence and noise, the atmosphere reminded me of Chicago's Millennium Park, with people enjoying the perfect weather, meandering paths and plenty of benches. I can only hope that this type of activity continues on a daily basis in Public Square.
Religious groups came out en masse – some preached fire and brimstone while others just wanted to share their missions. A woman who handed me a booklet entitled “How to get to Heaven from the RNC” told me she planned to go into missionary work helping the homeless or battered women.
People were dressed in costumes, carrying signs preaching everything from anti-Trump messages to phrases I couldn’t quite decipher. Others simply were just lounging in the square. I overheard one man, after standing up from a rest on the grass say to his companion, “The grass is so soft here. It’s nothing like Texas grass.”
Food trucks stationed in the middle of the square had sufficient lines of customers while live public art shows paraded the amphitheater. Live broadcasts by NBC’s Today show and MSNBC booths drew crowds on East 4th as people strained to catch a glimpse of their favorite political television anchors conducting live broadcasts. Other national media – such as CNN, the Washington Post and Twitter – took over entire restaurants.
Of the people I saw carrying firearms, many of them seemed to be carrying just because they could. Others appeared to be exhausted from carrying them around.
Offers of free hugs and high fives were everywhere, and business was brisk. I accepted the offer of a free hug from one woman, who said she and her friends just wanted to come out and share their love.
Visitors’ and Locals’ Impressions
Convention-goers were eager to find out more about Cleveland. Destination Cleveland reports that more than 750 guests came through the visitor center last week, while there were 2,372 downloads of the new Destination Cleveland app and #AskCle garnered 1,400 mentions on social media. Five thousand people went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Thursday alone, while 3,200 hit the popular spot on Tuesday and 3,500 went on Wednesday.
Cleveland Heights resident Megan Johnson went downtown to see the activity last week and found a positive vibe.

Convention goers outside the Q
“I would never have imagined I'd be that close to an RNC in my life, but what an experience,” she says. “I was so proud of my city and our people. I think that the many prayer/meditation groups around town prior to the convention really helped invoke the peaceful and embracing attitude we were able to exhibit, which says a lot about the intentions we all had for the success and safety of the event.”
Johnson says she also tried to make a point of thanking every police officer she encountered.
“Every visitor I have spoken to while downtown around the #‎rncincle has been excited to tell me how much they've loved Cleveland Ohio,” she says, recalling a comment she fielded from and Indiana State Trooper. "’I figured it would be a lot like Indianapolis,’ he said while working his temporary beat on a bustling E. 4th Street, ‘but I was surprised to see that it's actually much better!’"
A Unique Experience
My initial fears of riots, terror and mass chaos were calmed soon after I arrived downtown on my first day of the RNC. As I looked around, I could only hope that Cleveland continues its momentum forward with a spectacular Public Square, a vibrant downtown and a reputation for being a city populated by good, friendly people.
Many of the downtown hotels have already booked future conventions. The new Hilton, for instance, already has business groups booked through 2020.
And I hope locals will continue to come down, take a look around and re-discover a city we can all be proud of.

For a complete account of Rice's social media reporting, see the right hand sidebar or click here.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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