TAMPA — It's a perfect storm: Tampa's biggest party combined with a major concert, street closings and pipeline construction.
Individually, each makes planners cringe. Put them together in a tight place and they're a mess.
But that's what organizers face as they prepare for Saturday's annual Gasparilla celebration.
Their reaction? Bring it on.
"We're used to dealing with it,'' said police Chief Jane Castor. "Every year we have a plan in place and we tweak that plan as necessary.''
This year posed particular challenges because so many things are happening downtown. In addition to the Gasparilla parade, there's the George Strait and Reba McEntire concert at the St. Pete Times Forum, live music at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and a street festival on Ashley Drive. And then there's construction work on the Platt Street bridge and on underground water and sewer lines.
City leaders began meeting with event planners and construction officials months ago. They can't foresee every scenario or emergency, but feel confident
"We've been doing it a lot of years,'' said Tampa police master patrol Officer Paul Smalley, who handles downtown logistics during Gasparilla. "We've become pretty proficient at it.''
Extending the parade route to Ashley Drive and Cass Street last year was a big help, he said. It spread out the crowds and shifted them to downtown's west side, rather than the center. After the parade, people congregate in Curtis Hixon park, allowing police to reopen streets more quickly.
Police recommend Gasparilla-goers access the city from Interstate 275's Jefferson Street exit, State Road 60 or the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.
They also encourage people to take mass transit. The streetcar between Ybor City and the Channel District will start at 9 a.m. HART will run buses between Ybor and downtown from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.
But don't count on hopping on a shuttle from Raymond James Stadium. Gasparilla organizers scrapped it this year because of low ridership and high costs.
Construction on the Platt Street bridge should not affect the event, officials said. The city closes it to vehicles each year, limiting access to pedestrians and emergency vehicles.
The bigger concern lies with the bridge contractors, who have to secure equipment against mischievous revelers.
"It may pose some security challenges for the contractor,'' said county spokesman Steve Valdez. "We're batting down the hatches.''
The bridge will remain closed until the parade passes. It will likely reopen before the George Strait show starts at 7:30 p.m., but the city doesn't recommend fans try to access the concert from Platt anyway because it's bound to be backed up.
This isn't the first time the Times Forum has hosted a major event on Gasparilla night. It held a Lightning hockey game in 2009. Matchbox Twenty and Alanis Morissette performed there in 2008. About 15,000 people are expected to attend the George Strait show this time.
Event coordinators learned years ago not to schedule a concert too early in the day.
"It's not a challenge to do a concert if you time if appropriately,'' said Elmer Straub, vice president of event booking for the Times Forum. "We made sure the start time is 7:30 p.m. so that when the parade is over people can disperse and traffic can leave.''
The Pirate Street Fest runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. along Ashley from Kennedy Boulevard to Cass with food booths and two stages of live music.
While the festival has brought in national names like last year's Collective Soul, this year's lineup has smaller acts, which may draw fewer people.
Gasparilla-goers should have few construction-related problems. There will be no detours or work on the water and sewer pipeline project. The closest project to Gasparilla will be east of the party at Cass Street and Nebraska Avenue.
The project was scheduled for completion before Gasparilla, but was delayed because of issues with buried pipe, some of which is more than 100 years old. Crews now expect to finish in April.
Few know more about downtown congestion during Gasparilla than taxi drivers. They study up on road closures but inevitably get stuck in traffic.
"It's a very busy day and night. We try to direct (drivers) to where we think we can get into, but it's very difficult,'' said Yellow Cab owner Louis Minardi.
He urges patience and recommends people flag cabs as they see them rather than try to call and wait for a ride.
"People get a little angry, but we will try to get to you,'' he said. "With everything going on, it gets confusing.''