TAMPA — Bob Rohrlack Jr. remembers when Tampa Bay wasn't a region. It was a body of water.
"It was this side of the bay," he said, "and that side of the bay."
That was in the late 1980s. Never mind that the Gandy Bridge had linked St. Petersburg and Tampa since 1924, or that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had been playing football (sort of) since 1976. Back then the region was divided by more than just water.
But the upcoming Republican National Convention has unified Tampa Bay's economic players like never before.
"There's been that spirit in the community," said Rohrlack, the president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "It's like 'Holy cow. We caught a big fish. We need to reel it in.' "
They have no choice. The worst recession in 80 years has made the bay area's major players hungry to capitalize on Florida's first political convention in 40 years.
"When things are going great nobody needs anybody else," said Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce president Bob Clifford. "But now we're in a situation where you need to look around and see who you can partner with, how can you expand your economic development."
That's why the economic development agencies, the tourism boards and the chambers of commerce in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are so eager to come together and take advantage of the once-in-a-century marketing opportunity.
"This is our region's time to shine in front of the world," said Kelly Miller, president and CEO of Tampa Bay and Company, the tourism agency of Hillsborough County.
The convention will be like a weeklong Super Bowl when it convenes from Aug. 27-30 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in downtown Tampa. More than 50,000 visitors — including 15,000 members of the media — will flood the area.
Tens of millions more will watch at home. It's not just Tampa that could benefit from that exposure. If properly leveraged, the RNC could boost tourism, reverse the bay area's declining convention business and lure companies to relocate here, economic leaders believe.
"The fact is that when the world looks at an area they don't stop looking at the county or city lines, Miller said.
"Together, collectively, we tell a richer story and give a more compelling reason to invest and visit the area."
Miller unveiled one of those storytelling opportunities in a news conference Tuesday at Tampa International Airport: A coalition of economic development agencies purchased a 20-page special section touting the Tampa and Hillsborough area in Southwest Airline's Spirit magazine and US Airways Magazine. To celebrate their cooperation, the leaders and representatives of 14 Hillsborough economic agencies gathered to sip champagne and pose for photographs.
Southwest, Tampa International's biggest carrier, will make the magazine available on all its flights starting today. It is expected to reach 6 million readers this month.
The magazine spread was paid for from a $350,000 budget that Tampa Bay and Company is using to market the bay area during the RNC. Hillsborough County put up $250,000 of that and $100,000 came from Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing corporation.
More cooperative efforts are in the works. Those agencies are preparing to set up a social media command center for the RNC. It will be staffed by 50 people who will answer questions and push content out via Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TampaBay.
The coalition is also pitching stories about the bay area to national and international media, including the Washington Post and the magazines Southern Living and Travel + Leisure and will do the same for visiting media here. They're also planning a national media tour for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to tout the area.
But this improved cooperation is not just Hillsborough-centric. Leaders on both sides of the bay say they call and meet and plan with each other more and more, and not just for the RNC.
Clifford, the Clearwater chamber president, said his group is set to meet with the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Greater Tampa Chamber and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 15 to discuss their legislative priorities.
"When you're having discussions with your elected officials, when you're on the same page, it sends a consistent message about what the needs are in Tampa Bay," Clifford said.
Which isn't to say there aren't still animosities. The future home of the Tampa Bay Rays is a particularly thorny issue between the baseball team's contractual host, St. Petersburg, and potential suitor, Tampa. It didn't help that on Tuesday Hillsborough County issued a legal opinion advising the commission that they can talk to the team about its future home.
"We're not going to let our differences over the Rays interfere with this opportunity," said Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who requested the legal opinion. He spoke at Tuesday's airport news conference.
Miller said the important thing to keep in mind is that the convention may end on Aug. 30, but the area's opportunities will not. Tampa Bay needs to ask itself this:
"What is the next RNC, and how can we do it better?"
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.