Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Politics

GOP convention kickoff party at the Trop not a done deal

ST. PETERSBURG — Despite six months of public discussion and votes by governments on both sides of Tampa Bay to commit $1 million to the effort, a Republican National Convention kickoff party at Tropicana Field is not a done deal.

A member of the Tampa Bay Host Committee's inner circle said Thursday that an unresolved question in planning the party concerns how much of the Trop's field could be used for the Aug. 26 event, which is currently planned for up to 15,000 journalists and 5,600 delegates.

"If we use the infield, that's great," said Bill Edwards, a member of the host committee's executive committee and a music promoter who is helping to plan the party's entertainment. "But if we have to use less, they'll have to scale it down."

Edwards said he's not involved in negotiations and has only heard from others with the host committee about the question concerning the field at the Trop, which the Rays lease from St. Petersburg.

A mortgage magnate who owns his own entertainment production company and operates St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater, Edwards has been tapped to book local musical acts for the event. He said he expects to hear back in a week about how this issue has been resolved so he can hire bands.

The party is meant to promote Tampa Bay to the national and international media. Hoping to capitalize on the publicity, officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough are looking to contribute a total of $1 million in bed tax money for the bash.

It comes, however, during the stretch run of the Rays' season, one day after they play the Oakland A's at the Trop and a week before their next home game against the New York Yankees.

The timing has the Rays "concerned about the field," said Edwards, who wouldn't provide more specifics.

But host committee president Ken Jones, who is negotiating directly with the Rays, characterized the discussions differently.

Many details are still being worked out on how the event would be staged, the entertainment and the logistics, he said.

"It's an evolving picture," Jones said.

Organizers are looking at using all different parts of the stadium. They also are trying to figure out how many people would show up and whether they would use the field, the stands and the skyboxes.

"At this point, we're not in a position to reveal any details of those negotiations until we sign an actual contract," he said.

Jones noted that Edwards "is not the lead in negotiating with the operator of the venue."

Nothing about the discussions with the Rays has been acrimonious or contentious, Jones said, nor is there any issue he would describe as a sticking point.

"The Rays have been nothing but cooperative and great partners to the host committee in this event," he said.

Rick Nafe, a Rays vice president in charge of operations and facilities, said the club wouldn't comment, but added, "This is all being talked out on the other side of the bay; we won't know until we hear back from (the host committee)."

While St. Petersburg owns the Trop, its contract with the Rays gives the club sole power to lease out the stadium. Mayor Bill Foster said he didn't know about any back-and-forth between the Rays and the host committee. He said he wouldn't intervene if there were complications.

"It's above my pay grade," Foster said. "It's strictly between the (committee) and the Rays."

Jones said no one is talking about scaling down the kickoff.

"We are still contemplating doing the event that we want to do," he said.

Traditionally, national political conventions have hosted two big parties — a welcome party for delegates and a party for the media. In what is believed to be a first, the host committee wants to combine both into a grand kickoff to showcase Tampa Bay.

That said, Jones said the Trop is one of several venues the host committee has talked to about events, including the welcome party.

"We've always had several venues in mind for this welcome event if this venue didn't work out," he said.

He would not identify others, except to say they're in the Tampa Bay area. Still, it's not a long list. The venue needs to be indoors, big enough and available.

While Pinellas officials have talked openly for six months about the Trop hosting the party, the host committee has never announced where it would be.

Speaking to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club on Wednesday, Jones described the public discussion and news reports about the Trop as probably the "worst-kept secret" in town.

Still, he said, "The official venue has not been set yet. But it will be announced soon."

On Thursday, he said that hasn't changed: "I still think there will be (an announcement) very, very soon."

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