TAMPA — Hillsborough County Center took on the look of an evacuation zone Friday.
Government employees loaded laptops, files and phones into boxes and onto dollies. Maintenance workers cocooned lower floor windows with plastic panels. Crews unbolted monuments across the street at Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park and hauled them away for safety.
Of course, it's not a hurricane causing all the activity, but something comparably big: the Republican National Convention.
In what the county is treating as a practice round for a tropical threat, officials are shutting down operations at the main government complex in downtown Tampa. Some 1,200 employees are being shipped out to buildings around the county due to the government center's close proximity to the RNC hub and potential protesters.
Signs and brochures tell visitors, "We're Open for Business, Just Not Business as Usual."
"We've done everything we can to let people know we're open, but will be at different locations," said County Administrator Mike Merrill. "Hopefully no one will show up here on Monday."
The county took the step of shutting down a week ahead of the convention, figuring there will probably be early arrivals and to give employees a week to transition and work out any bugs before the crowds arrive. The move is also meant to take some cars off the road as 50,000 potential visitors arrive in town.
But in today's digital world, officials are not anticipating disruption of service.
Employees simply show up to their new location, plug in their laptops and go. Because the county used an Internet-based phone system, employees can also take their land-line phones with them and plug into a jack elsewhere. Their phone numbers will follow them.
"The people in our office who have already moved said that the only down time is the drive out there," Merrill said.
County officials are encouraging the public to call or visit the county's website to access services. All of the usual phone numbers still apply. But if residents need to renew a driver's license, meet with a county commissioner or do something else in person, they'll need to drive someplace other than County Center.
County courthouse operations and Clerk of the Circuit Court services not housed in County Center remain open next week. Courts will mostly close after that, with first-appearance hearings and some court operations moving to other locations. Clerk operations are moving to satellite offices.
At the same time, the John F. Germany and Robert W. Saunders, Sr. public libraries in or near downtown will be closed from Aug. 20 to Aug. 31.
The evacuation of County Center-based employees took place in stages through the week, and by mid-day Friday, the building was taking on a ghost-town feel.
"I'm the last," said Lori Hudson, the county's communications director, from the 16th floor. "I'm ready to go and basically need to take this, this and this, and my phone," she said, pointing out a few items on her desk.
County maintenance workers were busy affixing the plastic panels to County Center windows, up to the third floor. The panels, which look like heavy-duty cardboard, were recommended by the Secret Service, said Tom Fass, the county's director of facilities.
The same panels have been hung on court buildings and will be installed on other government office windows to ward off rock-throwing anarchists. Chillura Park is a staging ground for protests, and a fence will go up around County Center next week.
An initial installation of the plastic panels at County Center didn't take. Cranked up air conditioning on the ground floor causes condensation, which resulted in panels blowing off through the week. Fass said the air conditioning temperature was raised, appearing to fix the problem. The panels cost $28,000.
"We're trying to be prudent, to protect the public's assets," Fass said.
County officials are treating the exercise as a practice round for a storm. In the past, when tropical systems have threatened, County Center closed but some employees remained.
"This is the first time in the existence of us being down here that we have fully activated our disaster plan," Hudson said. "The RNC gives us the perfect opportunity to do it."
Times staff writer Keeley Sheehan contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.