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Downtown Tampa attractions prepare for Republican National Convention

TAMPA — What makes Tampa into the city we know?

For the thousands upon thousands of people who will flock here for the Republican National Convention in August, the answer lies in its cultural attractions, according to Tampa Downtown Partnership president Christine Burdick.

"They're all reflective of what's ours," she said. "They reinforce our uniqueness. They reinforce what is Tampa."

The Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa Theatre, Tampa Bay History Center — they all grew from intensely local seeds, Burdick said.

The downtown establishments will shape visitors' perceptions of the region, says Matt Becker, chief operating officer for the RNC host committee.

"It's critical," he said, "to how we try to sell the Tampa Bay area" — in highlighting "what's unique, what's different, what's special about Tampa Bay."

So how will our landmarks showcase themselves? We checked in with six downtown attractions on their plans for RNC week.

Florida Aquarium, (813) 273-4000

Visitors hoping to tour the Florida Aquarium's marine exhibits will be left high and dry during convention week. The aquarium will be closed to the public from Aug. 26 through Aug. 30, reserved exclusively for RNC private parties, said public relations manager Katherine Chakour.

"As much as we'd love to have both worlds, it just worked out" with events booked throughout several days, she said. "For us, that is great exposure."

The location and uniqueness of the Channelside venue caught a lot of attention, she said, for late-night receptions as well as breakfast and lunch functions.

Though she declined to provide specifics, aquarium officials previously told the Tampa Bay Times that they're finalizing agreements with four or five delegations.

Some of the aquarium's flashier event spaces include a 150-passenger, 72-foot catamaran; indoor space around the coral reef gallery and shark tank; and an outdoor Explore-A-Shore pavilion with a deck and cantina. Standard rental rates for those venues start between $950 and $2,000.

The aquarium expects to "enhance" its 24-hour security around the convention, Chakour said.

To accommodate regular visitors, the aquarium is offering discounted admission for $10 in the weeks from Aug. 17 to Sept. 3 (excluding the five closed days) through the host committee's GOParty coupon card.

Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, (813) 221-2222

The small Florida Museum of Photographic Arts will be open for business, said Joyce Zevola.

"We figure we'll never have an opportunity like this again to have this level of exposure," said Zevola, museum manager. "We want to definitely be part of the vibrant downtown, showing our best efforts here."

Zevola hopes attendance will rocket from 25 to 40 people on the average day to 100 people during the convention — potential for a large revenue boost with the museum's $10 suggested donation.

In rented space on Ashley Drive, the museum will exhibit "Portraits of Power" by New Yorker photographer Platon. The second-floor display is a series of photographs of world leaders taken at a 2009 United Nations meeting, Zevola said. The third floor will hold a Civil War exhibition.

The building has already planned to ramp up security, Zevola said, and the museum will have additional staff members working. For special events, the two floors of the museum will be rented out with the rest of the building.

Glazer Children's Museum, (813) 443-3861

In a newsletter, the Glazer Children's Museum warned that due to parking, security and safety concerns, the museum may have limited hours of operation during the week of the RNC.

But there's no word yet whether the colorful museum will alter its regular schedule.

"The overriding concern of all of this is the safety of our visitors," said museum president and chief executive officer Al Najjar.

Much of the decision will depend on the activity in neighboring Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, and whether that will create an inconvenient, rowdy or possibly unsafe environment, he said.

Najjar doesn't expect local residents to come by the museum during the convention. He isn't sure what kind of interest conventioneers have in visiting the museum that week.

The museum has told the Times that it was entertaining requests for private events from the Daily Beast website, the Tennessee delegation and the Lifetime Network. Event space includes a terrace overlooking the park and Hillsborough River, the museum's first floor or a third-floor reception area.

"Certainly the museum is still going to be showcased to high-profile groups coming for events," Najjar said.

Tampa Bay History Center, (813) 228-0097

Currently in negotiations to host a national news media outlet, the Tampa Bay History Center is likely to close to the public.

The museum hasn't disclosed the name of the media outlet but expects to announce it this week, says director of marketing Manny Leto.

If the deal goes through, he says the media outlet will broadcast live from the waterside museum.

"The History Center will be a great platform upon which to explore politics in Florida," Leto said.

Tours will be offered by appointment for delegations or other interested groups.

With its proximity to the Tampa Convention Center, the museum may fall within the Secret Service's security perimeter, which could have complicated regular operations anyway.

"If indeed we are host to a media outlet," Leto said, "I think that it really will help promote not only the History Center as a cultural venue, but be an opportunity to talk about the history of Tampa and the history of Tampa Bay."

Tampa Museum of Art, (813) 274-8130

It will be a nearly nonstop week at the Tampa Museum of Art, which will remain open to the public during normal hours and into the night to host private events, said executive director Todd Smith.

"We're one of the major assets and should be open and accessible," he said.

The decision stems from the city's pledge to look its best for the convention, Smith said. Plus, the museum expects to stay busy during what's typically a slower time of year.

He declined to name the groups vying to rent the museum's event space.

Adjacent to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park — proposed to house a pop-up nightclub — it's far enough from the flurry at the Convention Center to maintain operations, Smith said.

He preferred not to discuss security specifics for the week but assured the safety of visitors. In the wake of a vandalism incident with a Picasso painting in Texas earlier this month, Smith expressed confidence that no harm will befall the Tampa Museum of Art's exhibits.

The museum plans to add a display of historical political cartoons in time for the convention.

Tampa Theatre, (813) 274-8981

With several contracts out for private events, the schedule at Tampa Theatre could be so broken-up that the historic attraction likely won't be able to offer its usual evening and weekend matinee movies, said operations manager James DeFord.

But if there's an open day at the Franklin Street theater, "we'll try to squeeze a couple showings in," he said.

"We're proud to be able to show the place off a little bit to people from out of town," DeFord said.

Discount-seekers, rejoice! The Republican National Convention Host Committee has collaborated with local businesses and attractions to offer a GOParty Discount Card for special deals around the Tampa Bay area. The GOParty card will be promoted to delegates, media and convention visitors but is also available for local residents (though some discounts, such as one at International Plaza, require out-of-town identification). Good from Aug. 17 through Sept. 3, the discounts cover things to do, dining out and outdoor activities.

For more information, go to


Even if you can't go into some Tampa museums, you can still learn about them from the outside. The Tampa Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects has assembled a self-guided tour of notable buildings in downtown Tampa. Look for QR codes outside buildings. Scan them with a smartphone to pull up information on the building's design and history. Started last year, the project has expanded to include at least 21 buildings, including local museums, Tampa City Hall and the new USF CAMLS, says chapter executive director Dawn Mages.

For more information, go to

Downtown Tampa attractions prepare for Republican National Convention 06/23/12 [Last modified: Monday, July 2, 2012 1:04pm]
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