Thursday, December 14, 2017
Politics

Downtown Tampa companies leaning toward business as usual during RNC

What happens when downtown Tampa's 50,000 workers collide with up to 50,000 Republican National Convention visitors in August?

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and area business leaders want the chance to find out.

They hope most companies keep their doors open during convention week, overruling any internal concerns of snarled traffic or possible violence. They want to nationally showcase a vibrant business community.

So far, many companies appear willing to heed their wishes.

"We're just going to be here. We're going to be business as usual," said Sylvia Stephens, business manager of law firm Holland & Knight's Tampa office, with nearly 300 employees in two downtown offices.

Chris McDonnell, chief operating officer of law firm Hill Ward Henderson, echoes the "business as usual" refrain, though his company may shift work hours around peak times.

So far, he sees "no unusual pattern" in summertime vacation scheduling that may indicate the firm's 210 employees are trying to skirt the hubbub.

Brenda Dohring Hicks is downright adamant about keeping her real estate firm at 518 N Tampa St. open to make a statement, and she dismisses concerns of convention-related chaos.

"Right or wrong, we don't buy into those fears," said Dohring Hicks, chief executive officer of the Dohring Group. "We've lived through Super Bowls and other things."

If there is any havoc in downtown streets, Dohring Hicks says, employees will watch it all through office windows. She likened the convention to any event that draws heavy traffic. The company's 12 employees will treat it like navigating around a road closing, she said.

"We don't want to see, at a time when we're trying to create jobs and boost our economy, the RNC come in and close somebody down," Dohring Hicks said.

Some county government offices and courts plan to curtail hours during the convention or temporarily move operations elsewhere. A downtown Tampa school, the Rampello K-8 Downtown Partnership School, is likely to shut down that week as well.

As for companies, there's plenty of talk about cutting hours, letting some employees go home early or work out of home when possible. Carpooling is encouraged, too.

The notion of a widespread shutdown, however, seems remote.

"We're committed to keeping downtown Tampa working and looking good," said Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which year-round has about eight employees in a downtown administrative office and 20 workers employed as guides, security and cleanup detail.

"The decision today is the partnership will not close," said Burdick, who is withholding a final decision until much closer to the convention.

Being involved on the convention planning committee, Burdick said she's aware of contingency plans under way to mitigate traffic, provide more security and manage crowds. "I'm quite confident we have the best people working on this," she said.

Many of the convention activities begin later in the day, Burdick said. "It seems to me you could get six good hours of work in downtown and avoid the later crunch in traffic," she said.

For some companies, like public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, the decision is partly customer-driven.

"We'll have clients coming in from outside the area who will have to be served, and it will be hard to serve them from home," said Harry Costello, general manager of Hill & Knowlton's Tampa office.

Like others, Costello will hold off his final call until more convention details are released, such as how close the footprint of the convention's security zone is to his office at the corner of Tampa Street and Kennedy Boulevard.

"It's exciting," he said, "but at the same time you have to take into consideration a lot of things and one thing is safety."

At public accounting firm Crowe Horwath, some of the firm's staff of 40 will likely work remotely and some will stay in their offices in the Bank of America Plaza, 101 E Kennedy Boulevard. Building management has suggested employees leave before 3 p.m. to avoid the bulk of traffic congestion. Operations manager Angela Deese acknowledged she doesn't know exactly what to expect.

"What we've been told is this is the biggest event that Tampa has ever seen and ever will see," Deese said.

Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, expects a mixed reaction come August. Some will curtail hours or work from home; some may even shut down entirely.

But he doubts enough companies will vacate downtown to make a difference, given the surge of delegates, media and protesters on the streets.

"I don't think there's any chance it will look like a ghost town," he said.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242. Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.

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