CINCINNATI — “The vibe will be high” in Cincinnati when the NAACP holds its national convention from July 16 to 20 at the Duke Energy Center downtown.
That’s according to Jason Dunn, vice president of multicultural and community development for the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau. He’s also co-chairman of the host committee for the event.
Dunn is expecting an impactful week in which diverse people come together in pride to talk about important issues around the theme "Our lives matter, our votes count."
“The eyes of the country will be on the city,” he said.
The convention is expected to draw up at least 5,000 national visitors and thousands more regional visitors, the bureau’s senior communications manager, Debbie Pappadakes, said.
The convention has booked 7,500 room nights, the number of beds with nights booked. There are only 3,300 hotel rooms downtown, Pappadakes said, which means Northern Kentucky hotels will get business as well.
The economic impact from the out-of-town visitors is expected to be more than $2.3 million, based on a tourism industry standard calculation using $298 per room night, Pappadakes said. That includes money spent for rooms, meals and entertainment.
The city routinely hosts conventions of this size. The Church of God in Christ International Inc. AIM Convention, in Cincinnati from July 4 to 8, is expected to draw 13,000 visitors. The NAACP convention, though, will have a very high national profile, particularly if leading presidential candidates attend.
When he was a candidate, then-Sen. Barack Obama spoke at the 2008 convention, which also was held in Cincinnati. He and first lady Michelle Obama have been invited to speak again this year, along with current candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Hillary Clinton.
“I am pretty sure that at least [Trump and Clinton] will be there,” Cincinnati NAACP chapter president Rob Richardson Sr. told WCPO.com earlier this month. “The African American vote is still important, and I can’t see either one of the presidential candidates not coming.”
The NAACP hopes to hear from Trump, Obama and Clinton “at a moment when the country is reeling from all manner of civil-rights challenges and some economic anxiety,” NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks said. “Cincinnati is a city in which people are looking for answers.”
Other speakers include Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is scheduled as keynote speaker for the labor luncheon July 20.
Brooks said that Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx also has been asked to give retired Judge Nathaniel R. Jones the 101st annual Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest award. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Jones served as the NAACP’s general counsel from 1969 to 1979 and worked with Nelson Mandela to help draft a new constitution for South Africa in 1993.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see many members of Congress attend, Brooks said, as well as some high-profile entertainers. Last year, for example, members of the cast of the ABC television series “Blackish” showed up.
There will be free events open both to attendees and the community, Dunn said, including R&B and jazz music, voter registration booths, retailers and job recruiters at Fountain Square. There will also be a commerce and industry show open to the public at the convention center.
City government is working with tourism officials to plan for the convention and replicate or even improve on the 2008 convention, city manager Harry Black told WCPO earlier this month.
The visitors bureau is leading the host committee, which is something it doesn’t normally do for conventions, Pappadakes said. That’s because, when the convention was booked in 2014, the local NAACP chapter was “in transition,” she said.
As WCPO reported, the local chapter was locked in a dispute over the election of its next president.
City Councilman Chris Smitherman, who was president of the Cincinnati NAACP chapter at the time, chaired the host committee for the 2008 convention.
“It was one year of my life,” he said. “I would never do that again for free. All presidents work for free.”
The most difficult challenge was moving people from place to place, he said, particularly the older people who wanted to attend a big event at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Also, when Obama spoke at the convention center, organizers had to set up live audio and video feeds so it could be shown live at Fountain Square, which wasn’t set up for that at the time, Smitherman said.
Smitherman doesn’t plan to attend this year’s convention, he said, having broken with the national NAACP over its role in the resolution of the local chapter’s election dispute. Nevertheless, he said he wishes the convention organizers the best.
“It’s always a good thing when conventions come here to our great city,” he said.
Since 2001, when conventions were canceled in the wake of citywide race riots, the visitors bureau has succeeded in attracting multicultural conventions. Between 2004 and 2012, that business grew more than tenfold, with the city booking or hosting 15 of the 25 largest multicultural conventions in the country, accounting for more than $40 million in visitor spending.
Dunn said he didn’t know of any other city that has hosted the NAACP convention twice in 10 years. Organizers maintained the ties with the national organization that they established in 2008, and they kept courting the NAACP to return.
At the 2014 convention in Las Vegas, the bureau made its pitch to host this year’s convention, Dunn said, and didn’t shy away from talking about issues the city faces. According to Dunn, those are often the same that other cities have, such as economic equality, voter registration and education, and Cincinnati is a microcosm for things happening nationally.
“We’re particularly happy about coming back to Cincinnati,” Brooks said. “Our delegates have said again and again that, when they come to Cincinnati, they roll out the carpet and make sure it’s plush.”