TAMPA — The Republican National Convention on Monday unveiled a stage designed to add visual pop to its message and to help former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tell his story to the American people.
The cherry wood, mahogany and walnut stage is the centerpiece of a $20 million makeover of the Tampa Bay Times Forum and is backed by 13 overlapping, high-resolution LED screens, plus two more on the side to provide a clear view to anyone in the venue.
Framed in wood, the screens range in size from a little less than 9 by 9 feet to nearly 29 by 12 feet.
They can create a scene — a farm or factory floor — or display graphics, panoramic views and collages. Their resolution is sharp enough to show the stitching on the image of an American flag.
"This can be anything we want it to be," said Phil Alongi, a former NBC News political producer who is the convention's executive producer. "Even in the initial stages, we were trying to come up with a design that we could build to the excitement of Thursday night, so that every night it could be something different."
Moreover, the stage has 10 stair steps down to the arena floor, allowing for interaction between speakers and delegates.
Producing the stage itself attracted national media attention. The New York Times reported the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired theatrical setting cost $2.5 million — a figure that Alongi said he couldn't verify.
Earlier this summer, aides showed the candidate six possible designs for the stage.
But Romney, with experience overseeing the opening ceremony for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, rejected them all, according to the Washington Post. After more work, designers came up with a plan he accepted.
To program the images for those screens, the convention hired two companies that work on award shows and rock concerts.
Organizers also will flank the main stage with two entertainment stages, one reserved for a "house band" led by Saturday Night Live veteran guitarist G.E. Smith.
The stage reflects a year and a half of planning and more than 30,000 hours of labor by a 318-member production staff and crew.
Overhead, a half-mile of trusses holds 250,000 pounds of sound gear, video equipment and lights.
Overall, the color scheme inside the Times Forum is dominated by a vivid blue. On a side wall, numbers flicker ever upward on a digital debt clock.
From its official theme — A Better Future — to its focus on Romney's business experience, the convention will introduce Romney as a candidate "uniquely qualified to be president of the United States," said Russ Schriefer, a senior campaign adviser.
"If you were going to post a want ad for president of the United States — with high unemployment, a sluggish economy, too many regulations, too high taxes," Schriefer said, "and Mitt Romney's resume came in front of you, you'd say, 'Yeah, that's the guy. That's who we need to turn this place around.' "
Ann Romney, the nominee's wife, will headline the convention's opening day.
Also addressing the convention that day: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn (expect warm welcoming remarks, but nothing political from this Democratic mayor and strong supporter of President Barack Obama); plus Florida Gov. Rick Scott; House Speaker John Boehner; Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.; former Democratic congressman Artur Davis; Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz; South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; and Lucé Vela Fortuño, the first lady of Puerto Rico.
No such thing as bad publicity?
National media are starting to weigh in on Tampa, and it's not all pats on the back:
• Writing for Salon, Will Doig calls Tampa "America's hottest mess," saying "sprawl is gospel" in the bay area. He says the very name New Tampa implies "that 'old' downtown Tampa is obsolete," while the Suncoast Parkway is "one reason why the region's growth is mostly occurring 50 miles away. Downtown Tampa, meanwhile, has a windswept, desolate feel outside of business hours."
• On the Daily Beast, Lloyd Grove writes, "A mobbed-up past, a surplus of strippers: Tampa's got it all." While noting that Tampa has nearly 900 churches, he adds: "for all its open piety, Tampa's past contains an equal penchant for depravity. In his new book, The Dark Side of Sunshine, to be published the day Romney delivers his acceptance speech, local journalist Paul Guzzo documents a rogues' gallery of serial killers, gangsters, and practitioners of the bolita, as Tampa's illegal numbers racket was known."
• On the bright side, Chicago Tribune correspondent Nolan Day suggests five local watering holes worth checking out: the Columbia Restaurant and Gaspar's Grotto in Ybor City, the Hub in downtown, Whiskey Joe's on the Courtney Campbell Parkway, and — a humble favorite here at the RNC Notebook — the Tiny Tap in Hyde Park. "The simple cinder block building is not much to look at," Day writes of the Tiny Tap, but there's a "great local crowd with inexpensive pool, foosball and darts to play while you discuss your party agenda."
'Extra Friendly! Extra Nice!'
Those are reminders on a banner at the city of Tampa's RNC call center, which opened for business Monday.
A total of 71 city employees are scheduled to answer questions from locals and visitors over the next two weeks. There will be at least 12 people, including a Spanish speaker, taking calls 24 hours a day. Officials say they'll take questions on everything from which roads are closed to where's a good barbecue joint in East Tampa.
Curious? Lost? Hungry? Call toll-free 1-866-762-8687.
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3403 or @danielson_Times on Twitter.