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Charlotte's Welcome Mat Impresses Democrats

10/11/2011

Jim Morrill, Charlotte Observer

Yvette Lewis, a Charlotte native who now chairs the Maryland Democratic Party, was midway through a tour of the city Monday when a fellow visitor offered an observation.

"Your hometown," he told her, "is very cool."

That appeared to be the reaction of many of the three dozen party officials from 14 states who toured the city and its hotels.

They were the vanguard of up to 6,500 delegates who will gather for their national convention a year from now. Many were getting their first look at the city. And many liked what they saw.

"One thing that's been pretty clear is that the city is going to pull out all the stops to make sure delegates from around the country are accommodated," said Norm Sterzenbach, executive director of Iowa's Democratic Party.

"Our delegates are not only going to have a positive convention experience but ... enjoy the city."

The visit was the first of three by party officials from around the country. After a Sunday night reception at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, they boarded a bus for tours of hotels in SouthPark and uptown.

Then they toured the convention site at Time Warner Cable Arena and heard from Mayor Anthony Foxx and former Mayor Harvey Gantt. Then it was on to a hotel near UNC Charlotte and a reception in Concord at the Speedway Club.

David Glass, general manager of the Hilton Charlotte University Place, sought to sell the visitors on his 393-room hotel. He bragged about the nearby lake and jogging trail, even the hotel food.

"A lot of people want to be downtown," he told them. "I'd just like to convince you that the university area is a great place to stay as well."

From Wi-Fi to pillows

Reporters followed Democrats as they toured the hotel, checking out rooms, meeting spaces and amenities.

They plopped on mattresses and fluffed pillows. Some snapped pictures. Others asked about Wi-Fi, restaurants and drug stores. Jaxon Ravens, executive director of the Washington state Democratic Party, flushed a toilet to check the water pressure. ("It was great, the best I've seen," he said.)

After they return home, they'll give convention officials a list of their three preferred hotel "zones" (the five choices are uptown, SouthPark, the university, the I-77-airport area and Concord) They'll also indicate whether they want premium- or economy-priced lodging, or something in the middle.

Some choices will be dictated by need. Some states, for example, will have a relative handful of delegates. California will have more than 700.

Convention officials will match delegations according to needs and preferences. If two delegations want the same hotel, lottery positions drawn last month will be a tie-breaker.

Hotel assignments will come early next year.

Choices outside uptown

Charlotte Flanary, compliance director of the Kentucky party, said the tour showed her that uptown isn't the only good choice for lodging.

"At first when we came here that's what we thought," she said. "But after we drove around and saw how close these (hotels) were, it's not so bad."

Ravens, from Washington state, said Charlotte is "full of delightful surprises." One, he said, was breakfast at Mert's Heart and Soul uptown.

Chip Forrester, chairman of the Tennessee party, said he was impressed as much by the symbolism of Charlotte as by the city's facilities and hospitality.

"It's clear that (President Barack Obama) has not written the South off," he said. "Having the convention in the South is a message that we're going to be competitive."

Lewis, who grew up on Charlotte's LaSalle Street, doesn't expect to go back to Maryland and have to sell Democrats on their convention city.

"I don't know that I'm going to have to do a lot of selling," said Lewis. "Charlotte sold itself very well."