Planning for Republicans' Tampa party well underway
TAMPA — Think of hosting an event as big as the Super Bowl. Now multiply that by four or five.
That's pretty much what we're looking at with the 2012 Republican National Convention. It will be the biggest event ever held in Tampa Bay.
Fifty thousand guests, delegates and dignitaries packing every major hotel within 35 minutes of downtown Tampa over four days. Fifteen thousand journalists from around the world and potentially more than 10,000 protesters. More than 1,000 breakfasts, lunches, receptions and blowout bashes at venues from Ybor City to downtown St. Petersburg. A security zone like the area has never seen.
"We're talking about a Super Bowl on steroids," said Santiago Corrada, who is coordinating convention planing for the city of Tampa. "We're talking about five Super Bowls on four to five consecutive days."
Sixteen months before the big week — the one starting Aug. 27, 2012 — plenty of people are getting ready.
Once a month, a city task force with as many as 60 or 70 people meets to discuss topics ranging from security to garbage pickup to road closures. Planners expect many of Tampa Bay's attractions — the Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo, the Straz Center, the Dali Museum and the Mahaffey Theater — to host convention-related events that will require their own services and security.
Most every week, representatives from media outlets or other groups are in town scouting potential sites for broadcasts or receptions.
And the Republican National Committee's point man on the convention — Georgia businessman and RNC member Alec Poitevint — spent several days here last week for a series of meetings with volunteer consultants and local organizers.
They met with nearly 100 hoteliers from Pinellas County and another 100 from Hillsborough; leaders of 75 venues on both sides of the bay; police, Secret Service, leaders of the Tampa Convention Center, St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa Electric Co., Bright House, Verizon, the port and more.
"The level of cooperation and willingness to be a partner in all this by these groups is at a level you dream about but don't necessarily expect,'' said Poitevint, who as former treasurer of the RNC has been closely involved in putting together prior conventions.
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Soon after his election in January, RNC chairman Reince Priebus named Poitevint chairman of the Committee on Arrangements for the convention after firing the convention team that had been put in place by former RNC Chairman Michael Steele. That group faced criticism for excessive spending, and Poitevint is quick to note he's running a frugal operation.
Poitevint also happens to know the region well. He visits St. Petersburg often as a board member of St. Petersburg-based United Insurance Holding Corp., and remembers as a child often eating in Ybor when accompanying his dad on trips for his feed business.
"This is an unbelievable opportunity to display all the best you have to offer,'' said Poitevint, who talks about the Tampa Bay area as if he's on the area chamber of commerce.
He is working closely with the local host committee chaired by developer Al Austin, who said they are on track to raise at least $50 million in tax-deductible contributions.
The host committee is largely responsible for the nonpolitical logistics of the convention, while the Committee on Arrangements takes care of the political aspects — essentially everything designed to pump up the party and nominee.
"If the balloon is stapled to the wall, we the host committee pays for it. If it drops from the ceiling, the Committee on Arrangements pays for it,'' said host committee CEO Ken Jones.
Jones, 39, grew up in the Tampa Bay area and happens to know political conventions as well as anyone.
He volunteered at the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego; was deputy RNC counsel and Committee on Arrangements Counsel to the 2000 convention in Philadelphia; was the U.S. Senate liaison to the 2004 convention in New York; and in 2008 was general counsel and senior adviser to the host committee in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
"This is the best city I've ever seen put together a convention, not only in the bid process, but also the most cooperation I've ever seen,'' Jones said of Tampa.
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Assistant Tampa Police Chief Marc Hamlin has met with counterparts from past host cities, St. Paul, Minn., New York and Philadelphia, and has talked to people from Denver and Boston about their work on Democratic conventions, protesters being a prime topic.
Most protesters exercise their right to free speech lawfully, Hamlin said, but "there's a faction of people who are anarchists and are there to cause destruction and mayhem."
At the GOP convention in 2008, demonstrators set a commercial trash bin on wheels aflame and starting rolling it through the streets of St. Paul.
Lesson learned, Tampa officials say. No dumpsters on wheels, or anything else that protesters could pick up, throw or use as a weapon.
Don't be surprised to see surveillance cameras, maybe lots of them.
St. Paul used them and has recommended Tampa do the same.
"They found it beneficial not only during the event, but the footage they gathered (was used) in some of the civil suits they incurred and some of the criminal prosecutions they had to undertake from the anarchists," Hamlin said. "It's definitely something that was recommended to us as a good practice and something that we're certainly looking into."
Hamlin has met with representatives of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and plans to continue to meet with them, maybe with an eye on developing training for officers responding to street protests.
The city will act with care, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, and so should demonstrators.
"We encourage First Amendment participation," he said, "but if you break the law, you're going to jail, period."
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The planning required is extraordinary. Think dedicated bus lanes to shuttle guests from, say, St. Pete Beach to downtown Tampa without traffic. Think of pumping more power — far more power — into the St. Pete Times Forum than it has ever required. Think of a stack of cabling running between the Tampa Convention Center and St. Pete Times Forum being nearly 4 feet around.
"It's going to be an exciting time here," Buckhorn said. "There are unique security challenges involved in this, and we're going to deal with it, but it's an opportunity to showcase Tampa to the world."
Under its agreement with the host committee, the city will provide services required to support the convention, and the host committee will reimburse it for any non-public safety expenses solely related to the convention.
Federal funds will cover the city's public safety expenses.
The public safety committee includes representatives of the Secret Service, FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Tampa police and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. It's in the process of finding experts for 23 subcommittees making plans for everything from traffic control to dignitary protection to maritime security. It eventually will be expanded to include fire and emergency management officials, as well as other disciplines, Hamlin said.
The security perimeter for the convention has not been set but presumably will include the convention center, the Times Forum and the two hotels between them, the Marriott Waterside and the Embassy Suites.
The convention already is providing some help to the area's economy. On top of the steady stream of convention-related visitors coming through, the organizing committees will start hiring full-time staff this summer.
In August, the RNC will hold its summer meeting in Tampa, bringing roughly 400 people to town. In December, a media walk-through is expected to draw at least 900.
— By Adam C. Smith and Richard Danielson, Times Staff Writers