TAMPA — Protesters will be able to demonstrate one block from the Tampa Bay Times Forum during the Republican National Convention, city officials announced Tuesday.
In all, the city will create three protest areas within sight and sound of the Times Forum, meeting a legal standard set by court cases over protests in other cities.
The protest areas will be open to all, no reservations required, 24 hours a day during the Aug. 27-30 convention. They will cover a total of 7 acres — more than at either national political convention in 2008.
"There's going to be plenty of land available in close proximity, which is exactly what the legal test is," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "We got them as close as we could in the land that we could control."
The city also is creating an official parade route that goes west on Washington Street, then back east on Whiting Street to Nebraska Avenue. From there, protesters will march south on Nebraska to the largest and the closest of the protest areas, which the city calls "public viewing areas."
The parade route is 7/10 of a mile long and winds through a less-traveled part of eastern downtown. It's an area that's home to some heavy industry, including the big ConAgra Mills plant, the Rampello Downtown Partnership School — which will close for the RNC — plus a few lawyer offices, parking lots and parking garages.
So why isn't the route closer to the center of downtown?
City officials checked with the Florida Department of Transportation about whether the parade route could cross some streets — Kennedy Boulevard, Jackson Street, Florida Avenue and Tampa Street — controlled by the state. The answer was no.
That "created some obstacles for us to come up with a route that would work," City Attorney James Shimberg Jr. said.
The protest area at the end of the route has about 4 acres of space and is mostly covered with grass and a dozen or so scattered oak trees. At its closest point, it is a block from the Times Forum, though the view at that spot is obstructed by a vacant building once home to The Hut bar.
For that protest area, the city plans to provide a stage and sound system for demonstrators, who will be able to use the microphone from 9 a.m. to sundown. The surrounding neighborhood is not heavily populated, but there are a few quaint old bungalows along Nebraska Avenue directly across the street from the protest area.
"That's going to be crazy," 25-year-old Joel Brendemuehl said after hearing what is planned outside his front door. "I'm definitely not looking forward to it."
Property manager Eddie Diaz said his insurance agent told him his policy won't cover replacing property lost as a result of civil unrest, so he's worried.
"Basically what I'm looking for is protection in case something happens to my property," he said.
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Two more protest areas will be under the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway along Jefferson Street.
City officials plan to put water stations and portable toilets at to-be-determined spots near parks and the parade route, including one near the public viewing areas.
The protest areas will be fenced, and the city will ban items such as coolers, camping gear and large sticks.
To provide space for the protest areas, the city plans to lease several parking lots. The City Council already has approved leases for the lots under the expressway, and Thursday it will consider leases for the lots along Nebraska. Officials expect Tampa's $50 million federal grant for convention security to cover the $57,500 cost.
Tampa officials say groups also will be free to demonstrate and march in other public areas, such as on sidewalks in downtown.
Buckhorn said he thinks what Tampa plans for protesters will "set the standard for accommodating First Amendment rights."
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A protest organizer described the parade route and protest areas as "a step in the right direction," but said two main concerns remain: the heat and police.
The Coalition to March on the RNC is working on plans for a 5,000-person rally at Perry Harvey Park on the first day of the convention, followed by a march to the Times Forum.
Problem is, Perry Harvey Park is more than half a mile from the start of the official parade route. Organizer Jared Hamil worries about the effect of the heat on marchers just trying to get to the parade route and about police abusing peaceful protesters.
When the coalition begins to march from its rally, "we need the city to ensure that they are working with us, and won't work against us," Hamil said in an email to the Times.
It will, Shimberg said.
"We're trying to get his group some assurance that we will help the group get to the official parade route," he said.
Moreover, Shimberg said, the mayor has made clear that "our intent is not to have the police initiate any conflict with law-abiding citizens."
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In Charlotte, N.C., the site of the Democratic National Convention, the 1.2-mile parade route will come within two blocks of the Time Warner Cable Arena, the main convention site.
It will not pass by the Bank of America Stadium, where President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak on the DNC's final day.
Charlotte officials also plan to set up a speakers' platform so groups can sign up for turns at the microphone, but they have not determined where it will be.