Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., then called Time Warner Cable Arena, was host to the Democratic National Convention in 2012. (Getty Images)

Empty hotels, shorter retrofit time would play a part, expert says

Moving key pieces of a political convention less than three months before it opens is no simple task, but the same pandemic that drove Republicans to evaluate 2020 sites other than their chosen city of Charlotte, N.C., may also make such a move easier, said one arena manager with experience running a convention.

The facility operator preferred to remain anonymous because of the controversy erupting from the Republican National Committee’s exploring alternative sites in states that will allow a full crowd, in what has become a political clash between President Donald Trump, a Republican, and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. 

“If they can physically figure out a way to make it happen, it’s just a matter of all the external things,” the facility operator said. 

“They might be lucky. With the pandemic, all these hotels are probably empty and there are no other conferences, sporting events or concerts. If they mobilize quickly, they have the availability to do it.”

A fast-moving chain of events over the past few days now stands at a stripped-down Republican National Convention with 336 delegates expected to attend activities in Charlotte, according to news reports. There are about 2,500 delegates in the nominating process. Before the pandemic, the convention was expected to draw 50,000 visitors to the host city.

Committee officials confirmed Jacksonville’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena as the destination for Trump’s acceptance speech on the final day of the convention. ASM Global runs the arena, which was the site of UFC 249 on May 9. It was among the first sports events to take place without fans after the national shutdown.

Even with that, it’s a monumental task to shift gears for an event that spans two years of preparation.

In July 2018, Charlotte won the bid to host the RNC. Reportedly, only the Nevada Republican Party, which planned to host the event in Las Vegas, submitted a rival bid, though other cities were said to be interested in having the event. Over the past 18 months, hundreds of people have been involved in preparing for the event, including Hornets Sports & Entertainment, which runs Spectrum Center. The arena was also the site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. 

This year’s RNC dates are Aug. 24-27.

Three months ago, the COVID-19 crisis changed the course of direction for both Spectrum Center and Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, host arena for the 2020 Democratic National Convention. The narrative of arenas packed with delegates, media and candidates has been replaced with plans for scaled-down productions or holding virtual events, an option the DNC is reportedly exploring. 

For the RNC, Trump demanded a full arena in Charlotte, which goes against Cooper’s mandate for reopening the state’s economy in phases, with venues opening at a fraction of capacity over the next few months. Cooper is standing firm for a smaller event, which in turn, has the committee looking at venues in Florida, Texas and Georgia. 

At 15,000 capacity, VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena is much smaller than Spectrum Center’s 19,000 capacity for an NBA game. Considering all the preparation that goes into planning a political convention, plus the millions of dollars the committees invest in the retrofits, the thought of relocating the event may seem unthinkable to those who’ve played host to it in the past. 

The retrofits typically take six to eight weeks from start to finish, although some projects have been completed in 30 days after the conclusion of playoffs tied to primary sports tenants. In that case, the arena manager said, construction crews work double shifts to get all the work done in time.

“It’s certainly much more efficient than it was years ago,” the facility operator said. “The sets aren’t quite as big as they used to be and (with the use of technology) they don’t destroy as much as the building as they used to to make it all fit.” 

But the main stage still takes up a ton of space, in addition to accommodating the major networks to broadcast live from the convention. As a result, those production kills eat up thousands of seats. RNC officials have repeatedly used the number 19,000 for a full arena in Charlotte, but that figure is most likely inflated, the arena manager said. There were between 12,000 to 13,000 people in the seating bowl at his facility.

“We took out seating on one side of our building so they could build two-story press areas,” he said. “There’s no possible way they’re fitting 19,000 in Charlotte (and Jacksonville). But even at 13,000, that’s generous when you think about the amount of square footage taken up with the stage.” 

Security is another big concern, considering the protests in Charlotte and across the country following the death of George Floyd. That part of the planning process now expands to Jacksonville or wherever Trump’s speech is held.

“The security piece will be critical,” the arena manager said. “It’s the most interesting (aspect), but also the most vulnerable and scary part based on where we are with the divide in this country.”

As details of a multiple-city event unfold, the arena manager said the right thing to do was for cooler heads to prevail, keep all the programming in Charlotte, and scale the convention down to protect everybody involved with the event. As it turns out, the committee was unwilling to compromise.

“It goes against everything health officials are telling us to do right now in July and August,” the source said. “At that point, you might as well say, ‘Forget it, let basketball and the other sports come back (with full arenas).’ Then it doesn’t matter, if you’re going to let the political convention do it.”

In Milwaukee, as of this week, Fiserv Forum officials still expected to hold the convention at the Bucks’ arena. Whether the Democratic National Convention has a capacity crowd at the 17,340-seat facility has not been determined, an arena spokesman said. Dates are Aug. 17-20.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since it was originally posted.