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Allen County closes in on state Republican convention

Letters of support, $250,000 campaign chest could bring thousands here in 2014

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 - 12:01 am

Republican Gov. Mike Pence thinks it's a good idea. U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman and the equally Republican leaders of Indiana's House and Senate agree.

So even though an official decision won't come until August, it seems likely that the state GOP convention – long restricted to Marion County by party bylaws – will come to Fort Wayne for the first time in 2014, attracting an estimated 2,500 delegates and visitors and injecting about $300,000 into the local economy.

County party Chairman Steve Shine promises the Grand Wayne Center event would be “hip, youthful and cool,” and said a planning committee is already hard at work raising $250,000 to help underwrite expenses and ease travel for delegates, especially those from distant corners of the state.

And that's just fine with the state party's new leader, who just happens to be from Fort Wayne.

“I love my hometown, and it looks promising (for a convention there),” said state Auditor Tim Berry, who was recently named by Pence to head Indiana Republican Party and is expected to take office next week. “One of the first things on my agenda will be to start looking into cost and other details,” he said. “I have heard some positives (about coming to Fort Wayne) but also some negatives because of distance and the change in tradition.”

But Shine, who earlier this year helped persuade the party to amend its Marion County-only convention bylaws in hopes of luring the event to Fort Wayne, is working hard to overcome any reservations.

That $250,000 would subsidize delegates' hotel rooms and could also provide bus transportation to the Summit City from various parts of the state. As an added incentive, Shine is also hoping to attract a nationally known speaker and a nationally known entertainer, possibly for a concert at Parkview Field.

“Numerous companies have already stepped up to help (with the cost), Shine said.

Shine said the number of delegates should be especially large in 2014 because the convention will nominate candidates for three statewide offices – treasurer, auditor and secretary of state. They, officials, members of the media and other visitors will be impressed and possibly surprised by what they find, Shine said.

“We have great facilities, a jewel in Indiana,” he said. “As great as Indianapolis is, (meeting there) is routine. There's not that spark, so attendance has declined.”

Although this would be the GOP's first state convention in Fort Wayne, the city hosted more than 2,000 people at the Indiana Democratic convention just last year – an event that won praise from a variety of participants, including lieutenant governor candidate Vi Simpson.

In a letter to the state party, Indiana Senate Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, invoked Simpson in support of Fort Wayne's bid.

“She sought me out after the convention to let me know how impressed she was with our city, where she had previously spent little if any time . . . this community knows how to do things right, and would make the 2014 convention one to remember,” he wrote.

Also writing letters in support of Fort Wayne's bid were Shine, Stutzman, the three Republican Allen County Commissioners and House Speaker Brian Bosma.

“This would be a coup for Fort Wayne. It's a great opportunity to showcase our convention facilities, to show people how the city has changed. And the Republican Party is strong here,” Visit Fort Wayne CEO Dan O'Connell said.

Although some people in southern Indiana may not be eager to travel hundreds of miles north, their support for Fort Wayne's bid would ultimately benefit the entire state, Shine said, noting that Evansville is planning new convention and hotel space that could also host a future convention, as could South Bend.

And if the city does indeed land the Republican convention, it could give local Democrats an opportunity for payback. During that party's convention last year, the local GOP spent $10,000 on a TV ad criticizing Democrats' performance in state government.

"It's wonderful (Democrats) are spending money here," Shine explained at the time. "I want to invigorate my base and send a message to Democrats that this is Republican territory."