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Windfall? More like washout

Agora, the gift shop on Beach Drive NE, beefed up inventory for naught. Co-owner Morena Herrera waters the plants out front on Friday.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Agora, the gift shop on Beach Drive NE, beefed up inventory for naught. Co-owner Morena Herrera waters the plants out front on Friday.

Maybe it was the rain.

Maybe it was the many daytime speeches and events.

Maybe it was the heat, which the satirical Daily Show likened to a cross between the Friars Club steam room and a subway platform in Haiti.

Whatever the reason, not many of the thousands of visitors in town for the Republican National Convention ventured out to stores, restaurants and museums in downtown St. Petersburg.

"There was nobody around. It was kind of spooky," said Marcus O'Brikis, owner of Agora, an international gift, art and furniture store at 232 Beach Drive NE. He increased inventory for the big event. "I was stepping in front of the store and looking in both directions and there was nobody."

While hotels like the Vinoy Renaissance Resort and the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront were full and serving up lots of food and drink, smaller-business owners echoed O'Brikis.

"It's been really bad. We're not even getting our regular customers," said Mark Logan, co-owner of Moon Under Water restaurant at 332 Beach Drive NE. "We're probably about 40 to 50 percent off" normal sales. He thinks locals steered clear of the expected crowds that didn't materialize. There was plenty of parking along Beach Drive all week.

While local lawyer Phil McLeod ate dinner at Parkshore Grill one night last week, his waiter bemoaned how empty the Beach Drive restaurant was. He joked that RNC stands for "ridiculously no cash."

About 500 people attended a private party at Cassis American Brasserie at 170 Beach Drive NE, and the restaurant catered two smaller parties at the Ovation condos. But that wasn't near the impact hoped for.

"The rest of the time it's been very, very quiet," said Cassis executive chef Jeremy Duclut. "It seems like (delegates and guests) are all having big breakfasts. They are not much into going out to eat."

"I'm sorry to say we haven't had a positive impact from the RNC," said Jody Sherman, spokeswoman for the Florida Holocaust Museum at 55 Fifth St. S. Admissions compared to the same time last year were off by two-thirds last week.

"We don't know whether the storm impacted it or if people were afraid of all the traffic,'' she said. "Usually when it's a rainy day we have an increase in people because they can't go to the beaches.''

"There was absolutely no bump," said Salvador Dalí Museum spokeswoman Cindy Cockburn.

Audrey Dahlgren of California spent the week at the Vinoy with her husband, a major fundraiser for the Republican Party.

"We've had speaker after speaker," she said, leaving little free time to explore Beach Drive. "But the view from the bus is lovely."

The 30 delegates from North Carolina staying at the Hilton had rave reviews for St. Petersburg, though most said they hadn't seen much of it.

The downtown Publix was named more often than any restaurant, store or museum when the Tar Heels were asked where they've been besides the hotel and convention.

"You don't want to miss breakfast. We've had the best speakers — Herman Cain, Chris Christie, John Boehner and Marco Rubio," said Helen Eckman, 68. "We haven't really gotten out at all. We just get on and off the buses. But we think St. Petersburg is just beautiful.''

Judy Wiggins, 75, enjoyed lunch at Gratzzi and the Hangar but said she hadn't had time to venture to Beach Drive or museums.

"Because we get in at 2:30 in the morning from the night before, I'm pretty tired," she said. "I've taken a nap in the afternoon; then we go back to Tampa."

What about Monday, when the convention was delayed?

Two couples from Edenton, N.C., went to the Chihuly museum and then ate lunch at Moon Under Water.

"And we went to the Pier and took the trolley ride. It was just wonderful," said Wanda Moore. "It was so informative, down to what kind of trees we saw. All that history for 50 cents."

Patricia Russell, 88, who drove here from Franklin, N.C., said the only thing she had done while in town was attend the convention, though she did go get gas once and picked up takeout from Boston Market. When she had the day off Monday, she stayed at the Hilton.

"I had my nose in a book," she said. "Obama's America."

Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com.

Windfall? More like washout 09/01/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 1, 2012 4:31am]
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