Five years ago this week Cleveland put on its finest and hosted the Republican National Convention— a gathering of 48,000 people, 15,000 of them media and nearly 2,500 of them delegates with many seeing the city for the first time.
"Is this Lake Erie?" one Florida delegate asked at a pre-convention gathering at Voinovich Park remarking that 2016 sunset was comparable to Key West. Another delegate from Tennessee also expressed her pleasant surprise.
"Well we heard rust belt so I wasn't expecting it to be this pretty," she said. And yet another from California remarked "this is beautiful, what a town and these museums. I can't wait to come back and bring my kids."
They were precisely the reactions that the Cleveland Host Committee were looking for when they went after the convention. Destination Cleveland's research had shown in recent years if you can get a visitor to Cleveland for the first time you stand a good chance of sending them off as an ambassador.
Getting to this point was a decades-long process that took several attempts at both Democratic and Republican conventions culminating with $4 billion in economic investments including the building of a new convention center, a new Public Square and the addition of enough hotel rooms to pull off an event of this size.
A study a year after the convention found the economic impact of it to be $188 million but it was never about the money from that one week.
"No not at all and in fact we contended from way back when that was one of the benefits and not even the top one because it really was about foundation laying for future years which I think it's done," said Destination Cleveland President & CEO David Gilbert who was also head of the RNC Host Committee.
Yes, pulling off the convention successfully and without incident was the ultimate vetting of the city for any major event - the NFL Draft, the MLB All-Star Game in 2019 and the NBA All-Star Game coming up in a few months included. All of which Cleveland landed in part because of the RNC and in turn those events also benefited from it as well.
"We've taken this model, this organizing committee model we put in place for RNC it was exactly what we used for NFL Draft, it's exactly what we're using for NBA All-Star Game," said Gilbert. "And yes a lot of the people are the same but the structure of how we do it in Cleveland which has worked incredibly well has been a nice legacy of [the RNC]."
So looking back was hosting the RNC worth it?
"I'd do it ten times again," Gilbert said emphatically. "And that was a tough one to raise the money for, it was a tough one to do because of the size and scale and quite frankly the effort took a lot out of the community. It was a big effort to get it done and to get it done as well as we did but absolutely it was worth it and you'd do it again not just for that event but for what it's led to."
Another major benefit Gilbert points out was changing the perception not just of those visiting but of those who call Northeast Ohio home.
"We're going to have some numbers coming out in about a month on how Clevelanders feel about their own community," Gilbert said. "And while we started to see a rise prior to '16 there was a huge jump in '16 that we've maintained. "I think that that was really the tipping point of Clevelanders finally getting over the decades-long woe is us and seeing the city for what it really is, an incredible, incredible place."