America’s Finest City

runnerYou have heard, no doubt, about San Diego being called America’s Finest City. This was a great example of PR helping turn a real negative into an overwhelming positive. Even the most casual traveler to San Diego will read, hear or see somewhere the municipal boast of being “America’s Finest City.” The 37-year civic moniker isn’t the product of a focus group, a marketing study or an advertising agency. Rather, it emerged from a public relations embarrassment in 1972 for a city eager to get into the top tier of convention destinations, and for a new, young Republican mayor who had a chance to climb onto the national political stage.

In early 1972, the Republican National Committee announced it was rescinding its decision a year earlier to select San Diego to host the Republican National Convention that would nominate President Richard Nixon. Miami Beach was chosen as the substitute host city. The announcement was a blow to the city’s business, civic and Republican leadership. Millions of dollars had been raised to support the convention. Hotels and motels throughout the region agreed to clear rooms in mid-August (the city’s most lucrative visitor month). Significant planning had been undertaken for security, transportation, events, media accommodations, and for modifying the convention site, the Sports Arena.

The city and its Republican Mayor Pete Wilson were beginning to attract considerable favorable national attention anticipating the convention. It all went up in smoke with the RNC’s announcement, which suggested that the city really didn’t have sufficient convention facilities and rooms to adequately handle the surge. (The truth, which emerged months later from classified federal documents, was that the Nixon White House was primarily concerned about the threat of massive protests against the President. The physical layout of Miami Beach was far superior to San Diego for limiting access to the convention area.)

The decision and the RNC’s phony public explanation infuriated Mayor Wilson. It was a slap in the face by otherwise friendly White House Republicans who had led the campaign for San Diego in the first place. Further, and a bigger concern for the mayor, was the impression that would be left that San Diego was a second-tier convention city – an impression with lasting negative economic consequences. It was a visibly irritated mayor who faced a bank of local, state and national cameras and reporters to suggest that the RNC was misguided, and, worse, had misrepresented the ability of San Diego to accommodate the convention.

In fact, he said, “We are America’s Finest City” and then asked his PR director to see what he could do about getting that fact known. So, while the RNC hosts its convention in Miami Beach, San Diego would undertake a large-scale civic celebration of that status. When the week came in August, hundreds of organizations – civic, nonprofits, business, military, ethnic and neighborhood – sponsored a rich variety of events: A giant parade downtown, an “America’s Finest City” half-marathon, and an All States Picnic in Balboa Park, where San Diegans from different states could mingle with other like-minded citizens who had chosen to leave their home states for San Diego. An outdoor civic concert. The “Go Fly a Kite and Sail a Boat” event. Ethnic festivals. Navy demonstrations. Some of these annual events still survive, 37 years later.

It was a huge civic celebration where Thomas and the Mayor’s office acted as the coordinator of events, scheduling and – most important – promotion of the event schedule. The local media gave the events great coverage, including public service announcements of the schedules. And the national media couldn’t resist covering the civic celebration during the Miami Beach convention.

Mayor Pete Wilson went on to be elected to the United States Senate, and then to serve two terms as Governor of California, winning more statewide elections than any other person in state history.

San Diego would get another chance to host the Republican Convention two decades later. It was hosted in a new bayside convention center championed by Mayor Wilson in his farsighted redevelopment of Downtown San Diego that included thousands of new bay front hotel rooms. It was a tremendous success.

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