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Non-Conventional Wisdom

POSTCARD FROM SAN DIEGO

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Those of you in the rest of the world are fortunate. You get to watch the upcoming Republican National Convention on television. Those of us in San Diego, on the other hand, are forced to experience it first-hand, with all its inconveniences, headaches and pandemonium.

At times in the past two months, it has seemed that San Diego, a sleepy military beach town of about a million people, has been burdened with far more than any city should have to bear. At times I wonder, "What did we do to deserve this?" and then I remember, as after a bad dream, that our mayor actually wanted the convention rights. Wanted the city to spend more than $13 million improving the convention center and filling in potholes. Wanted downtown commuters to endure weeks-long detours and street closures. Wanted San Diego on the map. And all for a lousy four-day infomercial.

It's not the partisan nature of the event that bothers me. If it were the Democrats, the confusion would likely be the same or worse, since Democratic conventions are traditionally larger than Republican ones--a symbolic statement, no doubt, about the parties' respective beliefs about the proper size of government. Instead, what rankles is the neverending hoopla that has infected the marina, the harbor and the local news since the Republicans raised their mast at our convention center six weeks ago.

The newspapers (one of which I'm writing for) are filled with coverage of every tiny action, from who's catering the media parties to what the podium looks like. The Republican National Committee and the San Diego Host Committee have overtaken two floors of a downtown office building, spending about $3,000 alone to rent plants and purchase floral arrangements for the space. And, in not necessarily detrimental but certainly unusual occurrences, streets connecting the airport to downtown are being repaved, billboards welcoming the GOP fleet are popping up and the homeless are being readied to disappear from downtown's boulevards.

The benefits of this ruckus are supposed to be grand, according to the official pronouncements. San Diego will earn a place in the national spotlight (likely prodding every home viewer who salivates over the 75-degree, humidity-free weather to move here). San Diego's mayor could gain enough name recognition to bid for higher office in 1998 (the Associated Press is even including a profile of her in its media advance kit--Chicago's Richard Daly is not as lucky). And San Diego businesses will reap untold profits.

The last point, however, is wide open to contention, making many business owners unhappy in a month that in San Diego, unlike Houston, typically brings our largest tourist traffic. The city has organized two meetings for hotel owners, restauranteurs and parking representatives to alleviate fears that money won't pour in. Worries and unanswered questions still abound. As one hotel manager said in reference to RNC preparations, "We're still being surprised. on a daily basis." About 80 percent of hotel rooms blocked off for the convention have been booked, but many hotels still harbor large vacancies or have not yet received deposits. And many restaurants downtown are frantically campaigning to convince locals that it's safe to go downtown from 5 to 8 p.m. each night, before the convention proceedings close and the delegates descend upon the Gaslamp Quarter.

Beyond planning, the amount of cash coming into San Diego thus far is not as much as many business owners hoped. The money comes from three places: the city, which is investing about $13 million; the Host Committee, which is raising about $11 million; and the Republican National Convention Committee on Arrangements in Washington, which has been given about $12 million by the federal government. The city and host committee aren't obligated to report their expenses until October, but the Committee on Arrangements has submitted quarterly reports which show that over a year and a half, only about 8 percent of the approximately $5.2 million spent has gone to San Diego. With the city and host committee totals included, that percentage will likely rise, but these early tallies do not inspire.

Of course, the pageantry the Republicans will bring is not to be missed. And it is exciting to have nearly 30,000 people (nearly half of them members of the media) descend upon our city, attending parties at our favorite restaurants, hailing cabs from our glitziest hotels, ogling animals at our world-class zoo. We don't call ourselves America's Finest City for nothing, and we look forward to showing Midwesterners, Southerners and Northeasterners a glimpse of California heaven.

But is the hassle really worth it? Is it worth the press secretaries and out-of-town contractors strutting around as if they own the place? Is it worth the endless sniping by high-brow media executives about the postage-stamp size of our beautiful convention center? Is it worth the hundreds of thousands of hours of effort?

I don't know. But I do wonder where this leaves us, once the Republicans speed out of town with red, white and blue bunting trailing behind them like tin cans on the car of a newly-married couple. Perhaps back where we started, if a little poorer. Perhaps leaps and bounds more prominent in America and the world than before. Or perhaps a little wiser but not well. It seems the fame could go to our heads, leaving a taste of glamour in our mouths that will sour the morning after Bob Dole's acceptance speech. It seems we're taking ourselves just a little too seriously. It's only a convention, after all.

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