CNN plans to transform the first floor of the parking structure alongside the Tampa Bay Times Forum into its CNN Grill for the Republican National Convention. The grill will serve as a restaurant/bar/TV studio featuring CNN's morning shows, special reports and a midnight telecast by Piers Morgan.
The area, located inside the 1,450-space building officially known as the South Regional Garage, won't be where cars have been parked. A CNN spokeswoman says they'll use a storage area on that building's first floor, which has windows looking out onto the plaza leading into the Forum.
"We looked at a lot of locations around the Tampa Bay Times Forum,'' said Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief for CNN. "Literally, you have to pass the CNN Grill to get inside the Forum."
"We really want to be as close as we can to the convention floor. It makes it an easy stopping place for the delegates as they come out of the convention or as they're going in," he added. "It will be both a place to eat and drink and a fully equipped broadcast center."
The cable channel has brought its CNN Grill concept to the political conventions since 2004. In previous years, they have taken over an existing eatery, added some CNN signage and converted the menu.
That's what will happen in Charlotte, N.C., the first week in September, for example, when CNN takes over a Mexican cantina restaurant for its coverage of the Democratic National Convention.
But in Tampa, CNN will build its grill from the ground up, converting the empty space into a home for its morning programs Early Start and Starting Point, as well as a midnight show featuring Morgan doing interviews and talks with political experts each evening of the convention.
New York restaurateur Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group will provide the food, and there likely will be more TV monitors and neon packed into the place than all but the biggest sports bars could contain.
"We're going to bring in a group of undecided voters that we'll be visiting with throughout the week," Feist said. "At the end of the day, the political convention is really for the party faithful, but the people who decide this election will be undecided voters from a handful of states like Florida."
In the end, CNN hopes to turn its space into a hip hangout for notables at the convention.
Feist still fondly recalls seeing then-presidential candidate John McCain's senior strategist Mark Salter — a guy known for blaming press bias for McCain's defeat in 2008 — turn the CNN Grill into his hangout at the last Republican convention.
"In the middle of a campaign, the guy who is running the Republican nominee's campaign is a rock star," Feist said. "The delegates at that convention would have much rather spent time talking to Mark Salter than any Hollywood star, and you saw him every night.
"It's funny during a convention who the celebrities are."