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New Tampa Convention Center director settles in ahead of Republican National Convention

Rick Hamilton, the new director of the Tampa Convention Center, has wanted to work at the facility since it opened in 1990. He will have a busy year ahead with the Republican National Convention coming to the city in August.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Rick Hamilton, the new director of the Tampa Convention Center, has wanted to work at the facility since it opened in 1990. He will have a busy year ahead with the Republican National Convention coming to the city in August.

TAMPA

Over the last 22 years, Rick Hamilton applied three times for different positions in Tampa. Working and living here was a longtime dream. He finally succeeded late last year, when Mayor Bob Buckhorn offered him the job of Tampa Convention Center director.

There might be few more important jobs in the city this year, considering the Republican National Convention is seven months away, bringing an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 journalists who will work out of the center.

Hamilton grew up in Tennessee and attended Tennessee Tech University and the University of Tennessee. He has more than 30 years of experience related to arenas, conventions and special events. He has managed public convention centers in three states, including the Ocean Center Arena and Convention Center in Daytona Beach. He last oversaw both the 160,000-square-foot Ocean City Convention Center and the local visitor's bureau in Maryland.

Hamilton, 61, moved to Tampa with his longtime girlfriend, Lura, 52. He has a son, Andrew, 28, who lives in Knoxville. He started Dec. 6, managing Tampa's 600,000-square-foot center as it prepares for its biggest event ever.

He talked last week with Times staff writer Justin George about getting acclimated to the area, about who has the best seafood and why he always wanted to live in Tampa.

What's with you and seaside towns?

I love the water. The water and the sunshine. I grew up just outside of Knoxville, Tenn., worked there after college and I got tired of the gray winters. I used to be an avid fisherman and boater, and I just haven't done it in recent years but I do like to go out to the beaches and waterfront and enjoy the view. You've got to admit it, it's pretty nice.

Before you moved to Tampa, what did you think of the city?

I have loved Tampa since the late 1980s. I've actually been interested in working at this convention center ever since it opened in late 1990. When I got this job I was very excited and still am. I'm thrilled to be here. I think it's a great city and I love the amenities that are available.

I'm actually going to live in the downtown area which will be a new experience for me — urban living — but I think that I'm going to find that enjoyable. We're going to live over in Channelside. (The family moved in Jan. 7.)

A correspondent on The Daily Show recently referred to Tampa as an expletive that ends with the word "hole." What would you say to that?

I think — and this is not in response to his comment — but I think the city is a very vibrant place and very much alive. It's been a pleasure for me to be a part of this community, and I have literally walked all of downtown. I enjoy it very much.

Great people, dining facilities, entertainment activities, sports. Between here and the convention center and (Tampa Bay Times) Forum and museums, there's something to do here at all times. And Tampa Theatre of course.

What was the biggest event you ever helped oversee?

I worked for the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. I did all of the off-site entertainment, which included events at the Knoxville coliseum and the Knoxville performing arts center. I literally lived at the facilities for six months because we were so active. We had three performances a day for 180 days and they were all sold out.

What's under-highlighted in Tampa?

The downtown area is extraordinary in Tampa, especially the ease of getting around. The convention center, even if it's about 20 years old, is one of the most modern in the eastern United States and it's certainly picturesque sitting on the Hillsborough River.

Who has better seafood? Ocean City, Daytona Beach or Tampa?

I don't know that I can answer that one. Ocean City has the best crab in the world. The Maryland blue crab is probably world renown but then again I've probably had the best shrimps and scallops I've ever had here.

If someone asked where you could find the best Cuban sandwich in these parts, what would you recommend?

I don't know that I've been here long enough to do that. I've had the one at the Columbia (Restaurant). I've had one at Carmine's (in Ybor City) and both of those are great. But I can't make that recommendation until I've sampled all the others.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@tampabay.com.

New Tampa Convention Center director settles in ahead of Republican National Convention 01/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 14, 2012 3:31am]

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