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‘Tens of millions’ raised for Trump’s Republican convention in Jacksonville, mayor says

Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the host committee, would only reiterate that “tens of millions” have been raised.
Jacksonville skyline looking north.
Jacksonville skyline looking north.
Published Jul. 14, 2020

Fundraising for the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville has gone well, the city’s mayor said Tuesday — despite the logistical handicaps that have come with planning a rushed convention during a pandemic.

“Fundraising is strong,” Mayor Lenny Curry, the co-chairman of the 2020 Jacksonville Host Committee, told reporters on a Zoom call. “I don’t know the exact dollars that have been raised. I mean, it’s definitely in the tens of millions to put the event on.”

Questions about the ability to raise the money needed to host President Donald Trump’s reelection nomination acceptance speech and other related events in late August have persisted since the Republican National Committee announced June 11 that it would move most of its summer celebration from Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville after a dispute over how many pandemic precautions would be needed to keep crowds safe.

The New York Times reported last week that the move — announced less than three months before the Aug. 24 event — had “created money woes in two cities.” And members of the Jacksonville City Council have worried that taxpayers might be on the hook for funds, despite Curry’s assertions that no city tax dollars will be needed to host the event.

“In a perfect scenario, we’ll get the $100 million economic impact [predicted by the RNC], no pandemic, no civil unrest and a safe situation,” Jacksonville City Council President Tommy Hazouri said in an interview. “We all know better. I don’t anticipate near the money they think we’re going to be receiving. I think what we’re heading for is a perfect storm instead of a perfect scenario.”

Roughly $20 million in pledges have been nailed down for the Jacksonville convention, according to a source familiar with efforts to raise money for the event. Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the host committee, would only reiterate that “tens of millions” have been raised.

Nor would Isaac address reports that the RNC may move its signature events from the 15,000-seat city-owned Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena — including speeches by the president, vice president and first lady — to any of the nearby, outdoor stadiums in Jacksonville’s downtown area.

The city of Jacksonville’s communications office, meanwhile, deferred questions to Isaac about whether any other city-owned facilities — such as TIAA Bank Field, where the Jacksonville Jaguars play — are under consideration, as did the marketing manager for 21 Financial Ballpark, a downtown minor league baseball stadium. Both are open-air venues.

The lack of information has frustrated Hazouri, who said early Tuesday afternoon that he had yet to receive answers from Curry’s office from a July 8 memo seeking information, including whether the city will need to pay upfront for any costs for the convention. Hazouri also asked whether attendees will be required to wear masks in accordance with an emergency order intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 4,400 people in the state since March and led to roughly 13,600 total positive test results in Duval County, where Jacksonville is located.

Curry’s chief of staff, Jordan Elsbury, told reporters last week that the logistics of the event were being handled by the host committee — a private entity — and the council would be brought into the planning process if needed. He compared the convention to a concert.

Hazouri, though, said Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel has been working with the RNC to craft egislation — which will eventually need city council approval — in order to hold the event. He said he’s unclear about the details of the legislation, but believes it may be related to a federal U.S. Department of Justice grant sought by the city’s grants department in order to help pay for convention security. Mollie Timmons, a Justice Department spokeswoman, told the Miami Herald Tuesday that “it is still too early in the process to comment” about the grant.

“This is not Elton John coming here, the Beatles or Michael Jackson. It’s not a concert,” said Hazouri. “It requires much, much more diligence in preparing for this.”

According to a Republican involved in planning the convention, the RNC is preparing for different scenarios and various levels of health precautions, and has contracted with several properties around the Vystar arena, including multiple outdoor locations.

Gayle Hart, vice president of marketing for the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair about two blocks from the VyStar arena, told the Miami Herald that members of the RNC toured the fairgrounds weeks ago but have never reached out about a contract. She said the fairground’s staff learned of the RNC’s interest from the host committee after the tour.

“We have no agreements. We have no contracts,” Hart said. “We don’t know what they’d be using the facilities for.”

An emergency order from Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent the spread of coronavirus limits indoor venues such as VyStar arena to 50% capacity. The city of Jacksonville also has passed an order requiring that masks be worn indoors in situations where social distancing is not possible.

Curry said Tuesday that the city has expanded coronavirus testing, and is “monitoring the situation” as the convention approaches. He said testing capacity in the city has expanded, but did not discuss how and whether attendees of next month’s convention — who are expected to fly in from around the country — will be tested.

“We have many weeks till the convention,” he said. “We’ll plan accordingly based upon hospitalizations, community spread, etc.”

McClatchyDC reporter Francesca Chambers contributed to this report.