Sunday, December 17, 2017

Unwanted drama

Tampa's problem used to be not enough people downtown on a weekend.

Times have changed.

Now City Hall is hearing concerns that on March 29, one big event (a bicycle race through downtown) could interfere with another (a statewide convention of high school drama students).

"I'm surprised that it was allowed to be scheduled on the same day," City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said.

"I am, too," said Florida State Thespians director Lindsay Painter, who took the festival's concerns to the council last week.

That day, a Saturday, more than 7,000 students and teachers will be in town for the annual Florida State Thespian Festival, a rite of spring in downtown Tampa for 24 years.

The same day, downtown also will host the sixth annual Gasparilla Criterium and Cycling Festival. Last year's race drew more than 500 professional and amateur riders who sped around a 1-kilometer course.

Trouble is, festival organizers say, racers will pass the Tampa Theatre, one of three main venues for the thespians. That has prompted parents to question the wisdom of booking a festival with speeding cyclists and beer tents on a day when thousands of teenagers will be walking the streets.

Steinbrenner High parent Paul G. Schaut emailed asking what assurances the city could offer that kids won't be "hit by a bike, harassed by a rowdy attendee, miss an event due to the added crowds or even be improperly exposed to public drinking?"

In response, City Hall, the Tampa Police Department and event organizers considered shifting the race course away from the theater. But moving the course in one direction would mean closing Ashley Drive, which officials said would clog downtown traffic. Shifting it in another direction would interfere with buses on the Marion Street transit mall.

So officials stuck with the original route, but race organizers will pay for additional officers and other measures to keep bikes and students apart. The race already was required to fence its entire route, but will add a second barrier in front of the Tampa Theatre. Police will be on hand as students arrive in case any issues arise. And officials say students can always walk one block over to Florida Avenue to avoid any congestion.

"We're double barricading, and TPD is going to have extra cops there, so I think we're going to be fine," city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said.

In a letter to parents, city chief of staff Dennis Rogero also said the beer being served will be available only in the festival in Lykes Gaslight Square Park, and that will be fenced separately from the cycling route itself. Moreover, he said, IDs will be checked at the festival entrance, those attending will have wrist bands verifying they are old enough to drink, and beer won't be allowed outside the park or along the race route.

Painter told the council extra security and fencing is good, "except that it doesn't solve the problem of the crowds."

"The events that we host in the Tampa Theatre are timed events, and they are judged," she said. "So the students are on a very tight schedule, and if they cannot make their events on time, they are disqualified. And these are qualifying events for the national level."

She asked that the city keep race spectators at least a block south of the theater, so the sidewalk remains clear. At Capin's request, the council asked for a March 6 report on the issue.

Keeping the area clear shouldn't be a problem, Glisson said. At past races, the area in front of the theater hasn't drawn a lot of spectators.

Here's one other fact the report back to council is likely to include: This isn't unusual. Virtually every weekend, downtown hosts multiple events without incident. On March 29, the schedule also includes:

• The Spring Beer Fling at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, with a crowd of 3,000 to 5,000.

• Bark in the Park, a 1,500-person fundraiser for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park.

• A Tampa Bay Storm home game against the Orlando Predators at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. About 8,000 football fans are expected.

• GreenFest 2014, which is expected to attract 5,000 gardeners and conservationists to Plant Park at the University of Tampa.

• A Bayshore Boulevard event with 300 people.

Council Chairman Charlie Miranda cast the only vote against asking for the report.

"Nothing is going to happen to the 7,000 students, just like nothing happened to the Republican National Convention, just like very little happened at Gasparilla, but it was 400,000 people downtown," he said. "This city is a growing city, and it's going to have its challenges. And this is one challenge that we have."

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