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National Politics

Tampa survives RNC fever; how did we fare?

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:47 AM

They got the name right. Mostly.

Even as media from here and abroad delighted in finding new ways to describe the word "humid," Tampa (not Tampa Bay) came across as a place with polite law enforcement, plenty of opportunities for a lap dance and friendly people who shrugged off the worst of the slurs.

Hey, take your best shot, world. Tampa gave its visitors a crime-free venue, safe haven from a possible hurricane and Mitt Romney as the GOP candidate at the Republican National Convention last week.

If it's not sweat, the most memorable take-away of the week might be Tampa as a police state, with helicopters whirring overhead, 8-foot-tall fences or police in boats bearing down on kayakers on the Hillsborough River.

Thousands of armed officers in militaristic khaki uniforms hung out on street corners, sipping coffee, laughing but ready to form a line of might should the puny bands of protesters turn rowdy.

But perhaps the iconic image of our hometown is now the palmetto bug (make that a gigantic, eek!-inspiring, winged roach if you're from elsewhere) as it abducted correspondent Samantha Bee on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" on Tuesday. Geez, it was only a juvenile palmetto.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the beaming booster who appeared to have cloned himself as he popped up everywhere last week, relished it all.

"If people remember Tampa — even if it is for giant, man-eating palmetto bugs — I'll take it," he said.

Here's a look at how TAMPA fared:

Security

Whether Tampa's law enforcement efforts kept the area secure or merely frightened people is up for debate, but no one can argue with only two arrests related to protests.

Tampa police had a model of what not to do in studying the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., in 2008. There, protests escalated into violence as thousands of people smashed cars, punctured tires and hurled bottles at law enforcement officers who used pepper spray to combat them. About 800 people, including about 40 journalists, were arrested.

Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor's approach was courtesy with a side of backbone.

For example, on Wednesday night, about 50 protesters taunted law enforcement with doughnuts on the end of fishing lines. Some lay in the middle of the road.

Officers on horseback, on bicycles and on foot stood at the ready. Castor appeared and had an amicable conversation with the protesters, who then walked back to their designated area a distance from the convention site.

"If you treat people with dignity and respect, that is what you are going to get in return," Castor said after the standoff.

She had expected 15,000 protesters and so had about 4,000 officers on duty from Tampa and other agencies. Maybe 2,000 protesters showed up. Whether deterred by the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac, regular afternoon thunderstorms that drenched in an instant or the omnipresent police, protesters kept their cool.

Sometimes those who gathered were detained momentarily and let go if the group dispersed.

Police even brought food and cold water to the protesters' designated area. Kind of hard to spit on the guy who just brought you a sandwich.

However, the convention chased downtown workers to other locations, leaving the streets empty of even the normal daytime pedestrian traffic. Ghost-town streets, circling helicopters and omnipresent law enforcement made some visitors nervous. Genaro Figueroa, a delegate from North Carolina, was one of them.

"I didn't feel any safer — in fact, I felt less safe because all these goons with guns and batons are looking at me like I'm a bad guy; looking at me like I'm a potential terrorist, and giving me the look like they would crack my skull if I don't obey their every command," he said.

But Bernard Smith, a delegate from Louisiana, was grateful for the police presence.

"I have never seen security quite as tight as this, but we live in a very insecure time, so all the security the better," he said. "It wasn't intrusive, though. I think it was all very well done."

People approaching the Forum and Tampa Convention Center were subject to three vehicle checkpoints, wandings and X-rays of bags.

Journalist Tom Brokaw quipped on-air that security was "onerous." Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor, called security and logistics in Tampa "terrible" and "the worst I've seen."

Thomas' first convention was in 1964, and he has attended most of them since then. "I don't blame them," he added. "It's the times we live in."

Mark Russo, a delegate from Texas, figured it was a necessary annoyance.

"I guess you can't ever take a risk," he said. "I think everyone here has been friendly and very professional, even though it's hot."

Hotter than tar, just as sticky

Ah, yes, the humidity. They were warned to shuck the jacket and pantyhose. Republican officials tried to minimize time in the sun for delegates, sending air-conditioned buses to pick them up from their air-conditioned hotels and erecting an air-conditioned hallway to get them to and from the Forum without wilting.

But woe to those who decided to break free and walk somewhere. Or take the pedal bus.

News Channel 8's Adrienne Pederson asked conventioneers to give a one-word description of Tampa. The replies: "Humid." "Humid." "Humid." Eventually, she went in search of someone who would use a word other than humid, to no avail.

On Sunday, Richard Costigan, a delegate from California, tweeted: "My early impression of Tampa at night — lots of bridges, lots of water, high humidity, you need air conditioner and forgot about the hair."

Economic impact

Organizers predicted more than $150 million would be pumped into the local economy. It's too early to tell and might never be known for sure. But for many local businesses, the RNC was hardly a windfall.

Nevertheless, tourism and chamber of commerce officials said Tampa demonstrated it was capable of handling such an event.

"We can go out to the world and say we just hosted one of the biggest gatherings in the world — peacefully," said Kelly Miller, president and chief executive officer of Tampa Bay and Co., a tourism agency.

Restaurant owners had hoped for a wildly profitable week, and those who hosted private parties or provided catering did well. Those who didn't were slower, and some restaurants downtown sat nearly empty as delegates attended private parties with free food and locals stayed out of the fray.

Earlier in the week, Pizza Fusion general manager Michael Przybycin said he and other restaurateurs wondered what happened.

"I've spent the day walking around downtown, and all the managers of the other restaurants are standing outside asking, 'Where are all the customers?' "

Locally owned FitLife Foods scored big as its food became a catchphrase at the Forum after catering for the crew and cast of NBC.

"The NBC people would be walking down the street and people would ask what they're eating," said FitLife founder David Osterweil. "They'd come back with, 'It's a FitLife Smoothie Pop, bro,' and it became kind of a slogan. … They'd say it during mic checks: 'FitLife Smoothie Pop, bro.' "

Osterweil estimates they served about 18,000 meals, including to Brokaw, commentator Chris Matthews and others.

Getting around

For the most part, fears of heinous traffic jams proved unfounded. A bunch-up happened most days during rush hour downtown on Kennedy Boulevard, one of the only open east-west roads through town. Traffic on the upper level of the Selmon Expressway was lighter than usual; a downtown section of the lower level was closed all week. Interstates 4 and 75 backed up on a few mornings. Buses carrying delegates experienced some delays.

But the rush-hour madness never materialized as thousands of downtown workers stayed away and the big convention events happened in the afternoons and evenings.

Buses ran smoothly, too. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority's 177 buses operated with little disruption despite route changes forced by street closures and a few protests that temporarily tied up some streets. Streetcar ridership to Ybor City was up, too, sometimes three times the norm.

Tampa's image

Variety deputy editor Ted Johnson only had one problem with Tampa: He couldn't see it.

"With all these fences up around here and so many people not working downtown this week, it's like a police state in a ghost town," he said. "I'd like to see what the real city really looks like."

MSNBC analyst and former RNC chairman Michael Steele set up shop in the Channel District.

"Everybody has been great," he said. "I applaud the people of this region for their incredible hospitality. And in particular, their warmth and optimism through the questionable period of Isaac was infectious. We made it through, and we could start enjoying the beauty of this area."

Steele said, however, he had not been able to get beyond the perimeter of the RNC headquarters.

"The one problem with these events is that we don't get a lot of free time," he said.

Some delegates had time to take quick sightseeing excursions, but many spent most of the time in breakfast and lunch meetings, in transit, then at the convention in the evenings.

Smith, the delegate from Louisiana, and his family found time to get to Disney World, among other places.

"On our day off, we went over to the aquarium, we went to Busch Gardens, we took a ride out into the bay," he said.

Angus T. Jones, who plays Jake Harper in the hit CBS sitcom "Two and a Half Men," gave the city a thumbs-up.

"I love it," said the first-time visitor. "I've been having so much fun. Everything I've seen up until now has been great."

Mike Koolidge, a small business owner from Illinois, wasn't impressed when he first arrived, but that changed.

"First off, it was too hot and I couldn't find the character of the city," said Koolidge, a first-timer. "Usually, as you're driving from the airport to your hotel you get a feel for a city. I didn't get that. The next day I went to the Ybor City district, and that's where I got the best impression of the city. It reminded me a lot of New Orleans. It has so much character. I love it now, and I will tell people to come here."

Nancy Walters, of Rancho Bernando, Calif., told USA Today she thinks the Tampa Bay area is the only place in the world greater than Venice, Italy.

Tampa "is an affordable destination with the best beaches in the USA, culture, fabulous restaurants, great sports teams, a wonderful airport and friendly people," says Walters, who runs a marketing company.

Local developer Al Austin, who was instrumental in bringing the RNC here, said feedback has been excellent.

"Everyone I've spoken to, to a person, couldn't have been more complimentary of how well it turned out," he said.

Mayor Buckhorn said he would do it all over again, although maybe not right away.

"I think we knocked it out of the park," he said.


dkoehn@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8264 This story is based on reporting by staff writers Ted Jackovics, Richard Mullins, Cloe Cabrera, Michael Sasso, Michelle Bearden, Mary Shedden, Kevin Wiatrowski and José Patiño Girona, editor Dennis Joyce, columnist Joe Henderson and intern James Lewis.

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