Sunday, May 20, 2018
Business

Merchants ponder Republican National Convention impact: headache or opportunity?

TAMPA — The rumors are flying, one restaurateur said, and so were the questions.

Will Harbour Island be restricted only to residents during the Republican National Convention?

Will authorities ban outdoor cafe seating downtown so that protesters don't use tables and chairs as makeshift weapons?

Will police put a temporary detention facility in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park to hold any protesters arrested?

Let's take a moment, police Chief Jane Castor said, and think this through.

"Our city, for the most part, depends on tourism," Castor told about three dozen downtown business owners Wednesday. So "for someone to say that we're going to make Curtis Hixon a holding facility doesn't make a whole bunch of sense."

During an hourlong Q-and-A at the Samaria Cafe, Castor and officials from the Republican National Convention tried to give downtown businesses a better sense of what to expect when the GOP comes to town Aug. 27-30.

So, first, a safe convention?

Yes, Castor said. "I have no doubt."

Street closures, heavy traffic and scarce parking?

Definitely.

A security perimeter — the area fenced off and controlled by the Secret Service — that includes the central business district?

Not likely, though many downtown businesses are close to the convention site, so there will be some effects. The Platt Street bridge will be closed to traffic again.

A ban on outdoor seating at restaurants?

Not in the plans.

"To say that only residents will be allowed on Harbour Island is probably incorrect, but there will be some checkpoints," Castor said.

How about crowds so heavy that the locals should just stay home and avoid downtown?

Please, no, said Mike Miller, the chief operating officer for the convention.

Now working his 11th GOP convention, Miller said he has seen too many host cities where residents fear that the convention will take over everything, so they stay home, and their favorite restaurants sit empty.

"We want you to do very well," Miller said. "No one is out to try to shut anybody down or hurt anybody's business. We'd like just the opposite to happen."

Castor said police will hold more meetings with downtown businesses and residents so that everyone knows what to expect.

The outreach goes for the protesters, too, she said. Police plan to distribute brochures outlining the designated protest zones, what is and isn't allowed, key locations and important phone numbers.

While the merchants had lots of questions, there was optimism, too.

"I am very confident," said Georgia Xanthoudakis, who owns the Samaria Cafe with her husband, Steve. "The GOP is going to bring a lot of business in, and I don't think we should worry."

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