Fanfare, flags and a marching band greeted the team selecting the site for the 2012 Republican National Convention during a tour of Tampa hot spots Monday.
"G-O-P! G-O-P!" people chanted as the group walked toward salads and quesadillas waiting for them at a Channelside restaurant.
Supporters shook their hands and pressed them: "Come to Tampa in 2012."
It's the third time Tampa has bid on the convention, losing out to New York City in 2004 and Minneapolis/St. Paul in 2008. This time, Tampa is against Phoenix and Salt Lake City to host the mega event the week of Aug. 27, 2012, where Republicans will celebrate their presidential nominee.
The site selection team, which includes 10 national party representatives each from a different state and the District of Columbia, is scheduled to make a decision by June. National party chairman Michael Steele is accompanying the committee.
To entice them to choose Tampa this time, local officials organized a whirlwind spin through the area along with much applause and cheering.
At the Channelside entertainment complex, the committee and about 10 GOP staff members were greeted by dozens of people waving American flags and elephant-adorned signs.
The Mystic Sheiks of Morocco, a marching band featured at Busch Gardens, led the site selection team into the St. Pete Times Forum arena, the proposed main convention site, while playing Kool and the Gang's Celebration.
At the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, circus performers entertained them, and presenters pointed out that the Carol Morsani Hall is already red in their honor.
Site selection team member Alec Poitevint, a national committee member from Georgia, said he travels often to St. Petersburg on business.
"I never have the opportunity to do what I've been doing today," he said. "This is a very different experience."
So will he be casting his vote for Tampa?
"You're going to have careful and fair consideration," he said.
Their visit to the bay area started Sunday with team members choosing first-day options from a list that included Busch Gardens, a Yankees spring training game and a boat ride.
On Monday, they rode a water taxi down the Hillsborough River from the performing arts center to Cotanchobee Park near the Tampa Bay History Center. They rode a streetcar to Channelside, where boosters shook their hands and encouraged them to vote for Tampa.
Terry Castro, 63, was among those greeting the group.
"We really want the convention here," she said. "We want to show the nation, yeah, we lost Florida in the last election, but we will not lose it again. We want to take back our country."
The team finishes its visit today with stops in Pinellas County at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, Tropicana Field and the Don CeSar Resort.
Organizers estimate the convention will cost close to $100 million, with about half the money coming from the federal government to cover security. The rest will come from private fundraising efforts, says Tampa developer Al Austin, who is leading the effort to bring the convention here.
In addition to Austin, the local host committee includes real estate investment adviser Dick Beard; retired Walter Industries CEO Don DeFosset; former Gov. Bob Martinez; lawyer Ken Jones; developer Mel Sembler; and TECO CEO John Ramil. Several other business and political leaders, including St. Petersburg Times chairman, CEO and editor Paul Tash, are also on the committee.
Minimum requirements for hosting the event include a convention facility with seating for 18,000, including 2,500 floor seats; 15,000 hotel rooms; 40,000 square feet of office space; 350,000 square feet for media; and parking for up to 1,500 cars and 300 buses. The Tampa Bay area has it all, says Steve Hayes, executive vice president for Tampa Bay & Co., Hillsborough's convention and visitors bureau.
During the city's last bid, Mayor Pam Iorio agreed to provide $1 million in in-kind city services if Tampa won the convention.
But with the city already pinching pennies because of declining tax revenue, that offer is not on the table this time around.
Still, Iorio, a Democrat, said the convention would be good for Tampa, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to the area along with international media attention.
"I think we'd be a great convention site for either party," said Iorio, who had dinner with the site selection team at the Columbia Restaurant on Monday night.
Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, a Republican, participated in several events with the group.
"The feedback that I have received from chairman Steele as well as members of the site selection committee has all been very encouraging. It's clear to me that they like Tampa," he said. "The economic impact would be extraordinary, particularly when you consider August is a slow time for our tourism industry."
Holly Hughes, a national committee member from Michigan who chairs the site selection committee, said the people she has met in Tampa have good values, and look you in the eye and "read your soul."
"When they make a promise they mean what they are saying," she said.
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.