For residents and visitors alike, it's finally here. As if I need to tell you.
After years of planning and, in particular, these last few months of frenzied preparation, the Republican National Convention begins its takeover of our fair community for the next several days.
And here are two topics I guarantee we'll be hearing about: The economy and family values.
Enter Tampa's Ben Smith. He has his own platform regarding these issues, and it has nothing to do with partisan politics.
You already may know Smith. He's a 1995 graduate of the University of South Florida and a deacon at Christ Community Church. Though as a physics major he once dreamed of working for NASA, he instead went into the family business, serving as president of T&D Golf Stores.
He's been married to his wife, Becki, for 13 years and is the dad of three young kids, ages 11, 8 and 4. Which brings us to why he added yet another job to his already packed plate.
Smith likes to save money. And he wants to keep a little spice in his marriage. And he believes in supporting his church and favorite charities. So he came up with a way to do all three at once.
It's called FunNight (www.FunNight.us) and it works like this: For $15 a month, you have access to benefits and discounts at some 150,000 leisure and entertainment outlets across the country, including movie tickets starting at $6.50. Members also get a free $25 Restaurant.com gift certificate each month.
Now, there are plenty of online discount gift programs like this. In fact, Smith's is part of the FunVantage network already in place. But he's added two other components to his concept: Of that $15 a month, he will donate a third (or $5) to a nonprofit of the member's choice. In addition, he's aligned with two national marriage ministries to offer "Date Night" tools on his website that help strengthen relationships.
"That's a problem with marriage. You have kids, and that becomes the focus," he says. "You forget why you fell in love in the first place. So with FunNight, we're encouraging dating on a discount. And at the same time, you're also benefiting a favorite charity."
It's hard not to get swept up in Smith's infectious enthusiasm. Who wouldn't want a deal on dinner and movie, especially knowing that at the same time, you're helping out a nonprofit? Best of all, he says, it's a fundraising tool that doesn't require any effort or costs on the part of the recipients.
So far, Smith has distributed $1,000 to about 30 local organizations selected by members. But he's thinking in much bigger numbers as word of Fun Night spreads.
"My goal is 10,000 members by the end of this year, and 100,000 by 2013," he says. "If I achieve that, it would come to $500,000 a month for charities and churches. Wouldn't that be something?"
Smith is a big dreamer. But the fruits of his labor already are making a local impact.
Howard Baskin, advisory board chairman at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, didn't even know Fun Night members had selected his organization. But when Smith delivered a $200 check to him, he couldn't have been more pleased.
"We depend on donations here. That's what keeps our operation going," he says. With a $1.8 million annual budget, the sanctuary cares for about 100 abused and abandoned animals on a sprawling 55-acre property in the Citrus Park area.
"That check is going to feed one of our big guys for a whole week," Baskin says. "And the people who made the donation got some discounts of their own from the program."
And then there's the other aspect of Smith's program. After meeting Smith, Don Power of the Bradenton-based Marriage and Family Works ministry signed on to provide free advice and links to help in strengthening relationships.
He loves the idea of promoting one-on-one time for couples. That's something that gets lost as people get caught up in daily life, especially for parents, he says. But if you give them an outlet where they can get a bargain – while helping out a nonprofit of their choice – it might spark some interest in bringing romantic dates back into their routine.
"To me, Ben's idea is awesome," Power says. "I want to encourage couples to support it. We're promoting it with people we serve because it has such great potential."
There will be plenty of rhetoric – and empty promises – going on this week on the convention floor. So kudos to our own Ben Smith, who developed a practical solution to budget-tightening, boosting relationships and supporting nonprofits, all at the same time.
And he's not even asking us to vote for him.