Friday, November 24, 2017
Business

Downtown businesses worry that Republican National Convention may hurt sales

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TAMPA — When Republican party officials announced that the city would host its national convention, downtown restaurants and retail businesses rejoiced at the prospect of having up to 50,000 new customers.

But that optimism ran into a harsh reality this weekend when businesses learned Hills­borough County government planned to close its downtown offices and relocate services to other locations for two weeks for the Republican National Convention because of security precautions.

The news chilled the owners of businesses that surround and depend on the Fred B. Karl County Center, which houses about 1,000 employees.

Not only will restaurants lose those customers from Aug. 20 until Labor Day, but businesses wonder whether security measures will make it nearly impossible to stay open with street closures and parking prohibitions inside a yet-to-be-announced security perimeter.

"We don't know what streets they're going to close and if we're going to open or not," said Javier Lopez, manager of Cafe DeSoto. "If County Center is closed, 80 percent or more of our business comes from that. We keep asking what's going to happen, but nobody knows what they're going to do."

For more than 20 years, the cafe has served downtown workers Cuban fare such as baked chicken, yellow rice, black beans, plantains and its $4.99 sandwich-board special: a bowl of soup and a half of a Cuban sandwich. The cafe sits across from County Center.

"If they close, we're going to be forced to close," Lopez said. "I don't think we can survive for two weeks, and after that, it's going to be tough. Because our bills aren't going to stop."

Other businesses in or near County Center such as Sobik's Subs and Cannon Business Solutions say they're waiting to hear more security details before deciding a plan of action.

Meanwhile, Lonni's sandwich shop, which serves an array of deli sandwiches on thick sliced bread, is bracing for the worst.

Recent meetings with convention organizers have provided little information on what will constitute the security perimeter — and what will be allowed inside and outside of it, manager Marie Novak said.

"It's going to be terrible," she said. "We don't know where it'll be fenced off. We don't even know if we can open. We don't know if we'll be able to park. We don't know if we can deliver. We'd like to stay open, and that is our plan but we don't know if we'll be able to.

"We'd like information, but we don't know if we're going to get any."

The Secret Service will decide the shape of the perimeter and has said it will release more information on the security plan about four to six weeks before the convention.

If forced to close, Novak wonders, would the federal government, county officials or Republican organizers offer businesses compensation?

"Who's going to reimburse us for our business?" Novak said.

Ken Jones, the president and chief executive of the Tampa Bay Host Committee, said he wasn't privy to the law enforcement information that might have played a role in the county's decision to close, but the host committee wants to promote the area and hopes the convention creates opportunities for local businesses.

"Here's where the mayor and I and the police chief and I have a difference of opinion: I think we should have as much business operating in downtown and have people come here and use the restaurants and spend as much money as they can that week," Jones said.

"People keep telling everybody 'Go on vacation during the week of the convention,' " Jones said. "We keep telling them, 'No, don't go on vacation. … Come to Tampa. Eat out at the restaurants and make sure you spend money during that week.' "

Mayor Bob Buckhorn likewise said he hopes people — whether residents or visitors — enjoy themselves the week of the convention.

He said the city will work to accommodate demonstrators who come to express their opinions while trying to create a safe environment for everyone.

"We do want our downtown businesses to be successful," Buckhorn said. "Our downtown has come alive, and we want the folks who haven't seen it before to understand what a great thing we have."

Buckhorn described the county's plan to close as a decision that was up to Hillsborough officials. The city has not decided yet what its plans for that week will be.

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