Despite Florida's Democratic voter majority, Republicans dominate the state elections. And because the Sunshine State is as critical a battleground as any in the country, it makes sense that the GOP would hold its national convention in Florida.
But it's not just anywhere in Florida, of course — it's in Tampa, where organizers say they're ready for an expected 45,000 people (mostly delegates, reporters and protesters) to jam into the Cigar City the week of August 27, 2012, to observe the Republican Party's 40th national convention. The city was left at the altar in both 2004 and 2008 in its attempts to host the event, but as Mayor Bob Buckhorn would say, "This is our time." So what's going to happen?Show us the money
When you write about a convention, you've got to employ a lot of dollar signs, since that seems to be really what the whole thing is about: cash.
And optimistic officials with the RNC Host Committee are expecting to bring in a lot of it — a boost to the Tampa Bay economy of approximately $175 million, the bulk of it to be spent on hotels, transportation, food, entertainment and security.
Is that number real? Other cities' track records suggest it could be. A study conducted by the Minneapolis/St. Paul 2008 Host Committee found that the GOP convention generated a direct economic impact of more than $153 million and an indirect impact of an additional $15 million. The Beacon Hill Institute says the 2004 GOP New York City convention generated $163 million.
Meanwhile, there's the money to be raised. The Tampa host committee is committed to $50 million privately — while the group known as the Committee on Arrangements is attempting to raise $18 million more. And Mayor Bob Buckhorn is looking to secure another $55 million from the feds for security.
All this for a four-day ceremony that has become so devoid of drama over the past decade that the broadcast TV networks now only screen one hour of the proceedings each night.
And a Holy Cross study of 18 conventions from 1972-2004 suggests that in fact, local promoters' rosy projections are "overstated," and that these events have had only a "negligible impact" on local economies.
The study, written by Robert A. Baade, Robert Baumann and Victor A. Matheson, says that national conventions may result in large paydays for national restaurant and hotel chains, but "may not result in significant wage gains for local employees."
Host officials scoff at that, and perhaps with good reason.
Let's face it: With its soaring heat and humidity, Florida is hardly the first place that tourists want to visit in late August — the month that puts the "off" in "off-season." Add in overtime hours for contractors, police officers, hotel workers, maintenance workers, and there is going to be a multiplier effect in Tampa Bay.
As for the national chains-vs.-locals arguments, Host Committee Chair Ken Jones uses the example of the Marriott Corporation creating 100 new jobs for the convention. "Does that benefit Florida, or is it just accreting to the bottom line of the corporation in Maryland?" He tends to think it does both.Defense funding
As mentioned above, the city of Tampa (as well as Charlotte, the host of the Democratic National Convention, which will take place the following week) is requesting $55 million from the federal government for security. Roughly half of that is for personnel costs, the rest for technological improvements.
But is that really necessary, particularly in our new Age of Austerity?
Former Tampa Tribune editor Rosemary Goudreau questions that amount. "Do we have to reinvent the security wheel and the technology that runs it every four years?"
CL posed that question recently to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who said it was "acceptable and reasonable in our country that nowadays we make sure that we provide for a secure perimeter." So apparently the highest levels of the GOP, the party that's demanding we stop the spending, don't have an issue with it when it comes to their own four-day celebration.
Tampa officials plan on hiring 3,000 extra law enforcement officials from other Florida law enforcement agencies, and part of the federal money would go toward housing and feeding those officers throughout convention week.
Goudreau also questions the fact that donations to the Tampa Host Committee are tax-deductible, as the group is officially listed as a 501(c)3. "A political party is not my idea of a charity," she says, comparing their tax-exempt status with that of nonprofit and advocacy groups. "Not for a big party with balloons, streamers and speeches."Jobs, jobs, jobs?
The 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee will soon launch a "Business Opportunities Initiative" encouraging local businesses to bid on procurement opportunities at the RNC. Needed services include catering, construction, electrical contracting, florists, transportation and many others. Go to the official website (gopconvention2012.com) to sign up.
In addition, a business fair will be announced that could aid the host committee or the Committee on Arrangements (COA). Both organizations are working fulltime on the convention in Tampa right now.
And the drive to make Tampa thrive in the last week of August a year from now is bipartisan. Noted Democratic Party supporter Mary Ann Ferenc, the owner of Mise en Place, is a member of the Host Committee. She says the group is committed to making sure there's as much local business impact as possible, and to communicate with the COA and educate them on everything good that is present.
Mike Dino was the chairman of the committee that hosted the Democratic Convention in Denver in 2008. He says that thousands of temporary jobs were created for the big event, but only about 200 became permanent.
"The reality is that most of the jobs created are for a time when you're planning and executing the event," he says, adding that with the recession in full effect in September of 2008, it was difficult to sustain any major job creation.
One Tampa Bay area resident who hopes to prosper is commercial real estate agent Josh Dohring, who in addition to helping provide housing for people coming to stay in Tampa for the week, hopes to expand another business: sailing tours that take off from behind the Marriott Waterside. That's going to be the premier hotel for the convention, as it sits just hundreds of yards from the St. Pete Times Forum.
Also exploiting their connections with the national Republican Party is the Tampa-based political consulting organization known as the Victory Group, which is offering event planning and production, lodging and transportation.
And someone has to drive all these conventioneers around: Clearwater-based Ambassador Limousine recently announced that they have secured a contract to work at the convention. Kraig Obaraski of the limo company says the plan is to add between 5 to 15 more vehicles to their existing 52-car fleet. He says Ambassador will pull in some of its affiliated vehicles from outside the business to insure they can handle the additional traffic.
With all the potential paid jobs in the offing, there may be even more gigs available for people willing to work for free. Ken Jones with the Tampa 2012 Host Committee says there is a "phenomenal" need for volunteers, with room for at least 8,000 people to get involved. Along with greeters and guides, there's also going to be a need for legal, professional and medical services. And some people could be security volunteers (you might need a high security background check for that). Apply at gopconvention2012.com.Protest planning
Organizers involved in the 2012 Convention estimate that 10,000 protesters will flock to Tampa for the Republican/Tea Party outing.
However, as local activist Kelly Benjamin notes, previous convention cities that saw big protests — Philadelphia, New York City, St. Paul — all have much richer traditions of activism than Tampa's ever had. Benjamin attended all three of the GOP conventions in those cities as a reporter.
There's no question activists will be flocking to Tampa, and that some kind of disturbance, peaceful or otherwise, will take place. The degree to which these actions will disrupt the city depend to some degree to police reaction — or over-reaction. In New York City in 2004, the New York Civil Liberties Union reported that over 1,800 people were arrested — and 90 percent of those charges were eventually dropped. In St. Paul in 2008, over 800 people were arrested as police in riot gear used tear gas, pepper spray, flash bombs and percussion grenades after protesters' permits expired.
The Tampa Police Department intends to quadruple its forces for the week of the convention, adding 3,000 officers from around the region and state to supplement the 1,000 or so rank-and-file that will be working the event.
Former Tampa City Councilman John Dingfelder has recently joined the ACLU of Florida's Tampa office. He says many different kinds of people may want to hold a protest, or observe one, outside a convention site: peaceful demonstrators who just want to hold up signs; those performing peaceful disobedience (such as blocking traffic); violent activists; and innocent bystanders and members of the press, several of whom were swept up in arrests in St. Paul four years ago.
Permits will be a major issue, and Dingfelder says he hopes to work with City Attorney Jim Shimberg to craft a new ordinance regarding permits for protestors. He says that by the end of the year he hopes to have a link on the organization's website to the city's permitting process. He says as the convention approaches the ACLU will have a temporary downtown office and a rapid response team with a dedicated phone number and email address for people who need to contact the group in emergencies.
The ACLU will also be working with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department to avoid a repeat of what happened in New York, where a holding facility for protesters was set up inside a temporary pier depot with conditions so bad it was nicknamed "Guantanamo on the Hudson."Media blitz
An estimated 15,000 journalists are expected to attend RNC 2012. That number includes print, television and radio reporters and their camera/sound men, plus bloggers, who first started getting accredited to cover conventions back in 2004.
The Tampa Convention Center will be turned into a huge working space for these journalists. Kelly Benjamin says he intends to set up an independent media center for reporters and bloggers working for alternative media organizations.Get a room
Despite the jokes that any wayward state delegation that skirts the scheduling rules for its presidential primary could be shipped out to Hernando County, all of the delegates slated to be in Tampa for the convention are booked into hotels in either Hillsborough or Pinellas counties only. Some may choose to go farther away (say, Sarasota) no rooms have have been booked there by the RNC.
The Committee on Arrangements says that hotel assignments for the delegations will not be determined until June of 2012.Traffic report
Undoubtedly, people who live and work near the St. Pete Times Forum are concerned about how the event will affect local traffic conditions.
The U.S. Secret Service is responsible for setting the footprint around the arena, creating boundaries through which only credentialed attendees will be permitted to pass. Insurance agent Chris Kazr says he does a lot of traveling in and out of Tampa and, specifically through Kennedy Boulevard. "I'm probably just going to take the week off," he tells CL.
Mayor Buckhorn's chief of staff, Santiago Corrada, says traffic planning has been underway ever since the city was awarded the convention in May of 2010. He says that the city's goal is "always to cause minimal disruption to our folks that live in the area," and that as the convention gets closer and more plans are formalized, there will be community meetings to inform residents about what will be happening vis-à-vis road closures.
The coming months will see two major bridge closings in the city to ensure they're up and running well before the convention.
The shutdown with the most impact will be that of the Platt Street Bridge, which is the direct entrance from the west to the Convention Center. The bridge will close down for rest of 2011 beginning in October. And the Columbus Drive bridge will close in November and won't reopen until the spring.For the rest of us
Like other convention cities in recent years, officials with the Tampa Host Committee plan on producing a Civic Fest, a sort of Olympic Village filled with local businesses peddling their services. Organizers would like it to be held as close to the Times Forum as possible, but there are no guarantees at this point.
The Civic Fest will likely charge admission. In St. Paul in 2008, visitors were able to have their photos taken in a replica of the Oval Office, view simulcasts of convention sessions from a replica of the convention floor, and check out nearly three dozen exhibits, including a model White House.
Though they've become an RNC staple, these civic festivals haven't always been bonanzas for the local businesses that have signed up for them. Minnesota Public Radio reported that in St. Paul, vendors paid up to $2,500 for a booth — and had their money refunded back to them when promised crowds did not materialize.
Adrian Wyllie was not mentioned. He is running for Governor.
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