TAMPA — Parking is like oxygen to downtown business, and the city's top parking official said Wednesday that he wants to make sure merchants aren't left gasping during the Republican National Convention.
"It's important to me, as it is to you, that we do maintain a sense of 'open for business' and that we are providing as much public parking as we can," parking division manager Jim Corbett told about a dozen restaurateurs during a Tampa Downtown Partnership meeting.
That said, how downtown Tampa's parking will be configured the week of Aug. 27-30 is still being discussed, and preliminary plans could change based on security considerations. But it's likely things will look different:
• Major north-south roads like Ashley Drive and Florida Avenue could be designated as transportation-only corridors. Any on-street parking on those roads could be removed, making them tow-away zones.
• The on-street parking that remains is not expected to be metered. Officials plan to remove electronic pay stations that week so they aren't vandalized. The spaces will be converted to free, two-hour spaces. How much this could cost in foregone parking revenue is not clear, since the city doesn't know how many of its 1,400 downtown on-street spaces would be affected.
• The city plans to prohibit vendors from paying to rent a metered space for the day. The idea is to keep outsiders from monopolizing spaces that downtown businesses need for customers.
During the meeting at Spain Restaurant, Corbett also said he is pushing to allow the public to continue to have access to the Fort Brooke and Whiting Street parking garages. But some of the nearly 3,000 commuters who use those garages might have to enter or leave through a different access point. They also might encounter a security checkpoint around Whiting Street.
Generally, Corbett said, the convention is expected to have less of an impact north of Kennedy Boulevard than south.
That's consistent with the message more than 200 downtown business owners heard at another downtown partnership meeting Wednesday at the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel.
The key question — where will the Secret Service's security perimeter be? — probably won't be answered until four to six weeks before the convention, officials said. But when it comes to downtown traffic, city officials expect the convention to have its biggest impact late in the afternoon and early in the evening, before the RNC's proceedings begin. Morning rush hour should not be as affected.
Police chief Jane Castor said she expects Tampa's heat to be the biggest issue during the convention.
With the humidity, the average feels-like temperature will be about 102 degrees, she said. With the protective gear police will be wearing, it will seem 10 degrees hotter still. And when working with crowds, officers can probably add another 10 degrees.
The heat is expected to hit protesters and other visitors just as hard.
"The people that are coming down here from areas like Maine I think will just spontaneously combust," Castor said.
One thing the chief said "keeps me up at night" is that Tampa officials can look at previous conventions for lessons, but a difference this year is that so many people are angry.
"It's really kind of a nonpartisan thing," she said, with protest groups planning to leave Tampa to go to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
In response to a question, Castor said the convention is not expected to affect access to Tampa General Hospital as much as Gasparilla does. Other questions touched on cellphone coverage, access to downtown for delivery truck drivers and the convention's impact on Ybor City.
Afterward, one business executive said what she heard about convention planning was encouraging.
"I'm very excited about it," said Jo Jo Jiampetti, regional vice president for Five Guys Burgers and Fries. "It's going to be great for business."
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.