In five months, an army of 50,000 political bigwigs, deep-pocketed high rollers, public officials, consultants, conservative activists and media types will descend on Tampa Bay for the Republican National Convention. And they'll have money to spend.
Tampa will host the convention itself. St. Petersburg will throw a big party at Tropicana Field. So what does that leave for Clearwater and the rest of northern Pinellas County?
Plenty, it turns out.
For starters, local hotels will fill up in late August, normally a dead time of year for beach tourism. Also, small business owners are lining up to sell their goods and services to the convention's crowds — although time is running out for people to get listed in the RNC's business directory.
"We're hearing that 90 percent of the hotel space on Clearwater Beach is already committed. That's a lot of heads in beds," said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"We anticipate that all hotels throughout our region will benefit — not just rooms on the sand, but also along the U.S. 19 corridor," added Clearwater assistant city manager Rod Irwin.
The convention, which will be held at the Tampa Bay Times Forum from Aug. 27 to 30, is expected to bring about $175 million in spending to the bay area. Each night of the convention, about 50,000 visitors will occupy 15,000 hotel rooms in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The convention has reserved blocks of rooms in nearly 100 bay area hotels, but no one knows yet who will be staying in Clearwater and North Pinellas. Hotel assignments for state delegations won't be finalized until late spring when officials sort through requests from each state, said RNC spokesman James Davis.
Corporations, organizations and state delegations are expected to book about 75 bay-area venues for parties, brunches, cocktail hours, galas and various meet-and-greets. Out-of-town clients will need event planners, limo drivers, security guards, florists, gift baskets, barricades and food — lots of food.
You know Clearwater wants a piece of this.
Castles in the sand
Consider the case of the sand sculpture.
Down in Treasure Island, the local chamber of commerce had planned a big beachfront sculpture to grab some publicity during the convention. That idea was killed because Treasure Island's police chief was worried about protesters and wanted extra officers on duty for a 10-day period bracketing the four-day convention.
Meanwhile, the Clearwater chamber is raising money for its own sand sculpture during the RNC. It's to be located between Pier 60 and the Clearwater Beach roundabout, in a highly visible spot that can be fenced off. It'll probably feature a mix of Florida and Washington, D.C., themes. The plan is for it to be twice as big as an 80-ton sculpture that the chamber put in the same place during the rollout of the film Dolphin Tale.
Venues like restaurants and country clubs are poised for bookings, although few of them have any at this point. For those of a different political inclination, on the last night of the convention Ruth Eckerd Hall will host a live show by comedian Bill Maher, who delights in skewering conservatives.
Doing some business
Mom-and-pop businesses are chomping at the bit to market their wares to the RNC crowd. But they have limited time to get in the pipeline for work. About 400 bay area businesses have already started the process.
"They've got until March 31 to get registered," said Matt Becker, CEO of the Tampa Bay Host Committee, the nonprofit group that's supporting the convention and promoting the bay area.
To help local companies connect with buyers at the convention, the host committee has created a small business networking program. It will publish a directory of the participating businesses next month.
Several businesses in northern Pinellas County have signed up, although they have yet to strike gold.
"We're waiting for one good break to get our business booming, but I haven't had anybody contact me yet," said Mary Kay Oney-Hatt, owner of Sweet Ida Mae's Bakery in Safety Harbor. "I have a cupcake truck. We do really good sugar cookies. We do candy buffets, brownies and cake balls."
Sheree Johnson owns Image Masters International, a photography and video production company in Clearwater. "I have no matches just yet, but I'm hopeful," she said. "I'm hoping they're going to have a lot of pre-parties, after-parties, presentations and off-site meetings before the convention and possibly after."
Organizers are preaching patience. The host committee can't guarantee that businesses will get work with the convention. "We will promote and market them to the best of our ability, but they also need to do that for themselves," Becker said.
To qualify for the networking program, a business must be located in and its owner must live in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Polk or Manatee counties. Also, the company must be certified as a small business enterprise (SBE), women/minority business enterprise (WMBE) or service-disabled veteran enterprise (SDVE) by the cities of St. Petersburg or Tampa or by Pinellas or Hillsborough counties.
"The business needs of the convention will be dictated as the convention develops," said Cynthia Johnson, Pinellas County's senior manager for business assistance. "What we're doing now is preparing our local businesses to be ready for those opportunities, whatever they may be."
Staff Writer Elizabeth Behrman contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.