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Big weekend rains cash on downtown Tampa merchants

Ben Hobbs, right, 24, and Drew Roberts, 25, both from Kentucky, buy drinks from Brooke Elliott, 21, in Channelside after an NCAA basketball tournament game on Thursday.

BRYAN THOMAS | Times

Ben Hobbs, right, 24, and Drew Roberts, 25, both from Kentucky, buy drinks from Brooke Elliott, 21, in Channelside after an NCAA basketball tournament game on Thursday.

TAMPA — The visitors don't seem to have much in common.

High school drama students roam downtown Tampa in matching T-shirts. Spring breakers pack bars. In the shadow of high-stakes college basketball, a model train show arrives at the Convention Center.

But retailers and restaurants know what they all bring with them: cash.

"I expect it to be a banner weekend," said Robert Fisher, the general manager of the Channelside Bay Plaza Hooters. "A mini Super Bowl."

Downtown and West Shore hotels report solid bookings.

At times Thursday, Tampa International Airport ran out of cabs.

Between 18,000 and 20,000 college basketball fans are in town to watch NCAA men's basketball tournament games at the St. Pete Times Forum. About 7,000 high school students, parents and volunteers have come for the Florida State Thespian Festival at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and the Tampa Convention Center.

On Saturday, the World's Greatest Hobby Tour will pull into the Convention Center, bringing several thousand more people downtown.

Add to that the heavy local crowds that sloshed into Channelside, Ybor City and South Howard establishments for St. Patrick's Day.

"This is definitely a big one," said Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission chief inspector Mario Tamargo.

Hooters opened at 11 a.m., and a crowd filled every table. A group of uniformed Rough Riders, green beads strung around their necks, enjoyed sunshine and suds near tailgating Kentucky Wildcat fans. Across the way, University of Florida fans urged Princeton University fans at TinaTapa's to "Beat the 'Cats."

Princeton cheerleaders rallied while the school band, clad in orange plaid jackets, played the fight song. A conductor in a white tuxedo and shark hat marched them around the complex.

In the evening, Garrison Channel turned green, and the Rough Riders set sail.

"Downtown is going to be very, very exciting for the next couple of days," said Travis Claytor of Tampa Bay & Company, the visitors bureau. "It's booking."

He estimates that the basketball tournament alone will pump as much as $15 million into the local economy and book up to 10,000 hotel room nights.

That's no surprise to Dennis Murphy, 48.

The Princeton fan from Hopewell, N.Y., flew in late Wednesday, called six hotels and found no vacancies. He finally landed in a motel so dumpy he didn't want to name it.

"The lock was broken on the door," said Murphy.

The 257 schools participating in the Florida State Thespian Festival booked blocks of hotel rooms weeks in advance, said Giovanni Falzone, junior state student director.

But Ben Ford and Shelby Heye, 18-year-old Palm Harbor High School seniors, said they still had to wait a couple of hours while checking into the Howard Johnson Plaza, filled with a mix of sporty and serious visitors.

"We saw a bunch of guys in bathing suits coming down from the pool," Heye said, "and they didn't look like part of our crowd."

Several blocks away, the hockey hangout Hattricks opened at 10 a.m. Thursday, an hour and 15 minutes earlier than usual, to throngs of jubilant Kentucky and West Virginia fans.

"Everyone's working," owner Stephen Mace said. "No one's allowed to be off."

Back at Channelside, the novelty store White House Gear was prepared for everyone. Hanging from its doors were blue Kentucky tops that said, "Real Women don't date Louisville fans," and green Michigan State shirts that read, "Make Michigan, Our Bichigan."

When the thespians come, tables of Hollywood merchandise were ready for them, too.

"I honestly expect it to be a big weekend," owner Janet Griffin said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Big weekend rains cash on downtown Tampa merchants 03/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2011 11:07pm]
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