Thursday, February 22, 2018
Politics

Big bashes planned for downtown, but hosts and guest list a mystery

TAMPA — Several hundred people will party — hard — in three landmark downtown buildings during the Republican National Convention in what promise to be among the glitziest galas of the week.

Exclusive, too, because who exactly is throwing and attending the nightly bashes is strictly hush-hush.

"Whoever it is, they're making a serious commitment to throwing a party," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, laughing. "All I know is that my invitation hasn't arrived yet."

What is known is that Joyce Gates, the former chief of staff to Ohio congressman and current U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, is the one who filed the application for the events, which will be attended nightly by 600 to 800 guests. Gates, a party planner from Alexandria, Va., chose to hold the parties in the 800 block of North Franklin Street in three historic but blighted buildings: the S.H. Kress, F.W. Woolworth and J.J. Newberry.

Gates didn't return phone calls or reply to emails, but documents she submitted to the city show that at least $660,000 will be spent to get the buildings ready. New doors, air conditioning and lights are being installed for a series of parties that will have a tropical beach theme, according to a site plan.

A lobby will feature a pirate statue, a treasure map and lots of bamboo. Sand will be imported to cover the ground of one lounge, which will have hammocks, other hanging chairs and a coconut tree. There will be a jazz club, a massive dance floor next to a water feature and a turntable stage surrounded by the main bar. The improvements are temporary, however, and will vanish when the partying is over.

Even the owner of the three buildings, Jeannette Jason, said she didn't know who was attending.

She hadn't been told whether Boehner, third in line to the presidency, would be there.

"That's the assumption, but no one knows," Jason said.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said that the speaker had no connection to the events. He wouldn't confirm or deny that Boehner would attend.

"I'm afraid for security reasons, we do not release the speaker's schedule in advance," Steel said in an email.

The bashes are being produced by Gates, who started a party organizing company in 1996 called Warehouse Productions. That year, according to various news accounts, a series of nightly parties were thrown in an 1890s-era warehouse during the GOP convention in San Diego in honor of Boehner. Dubbed "The Best Little Warehouse Party in San Diego — where the Convention gets Unconventional," the parties gained a reputation for being the best that year. Gates and her husband, a Washington lobbyist, created the company afterward, which subsequently organized parties for each of the conventions that followed. They became renowned for stretching into the wee hours.

In 2000, the Philadelphia Inquirer described Boehner as the organizer for that year's events, again in a warehouse, which the newspaper said was tricked out with "frat-boy-fantasy furnishings" and a "few hundred lobbyists and pol pals" each night.

During 2004's New York convention, the parties migrated to the Tunnel, a former nightclub on Manhattan's West Side, that, according to USA Today, were again being thrown to honor Boehner.

Boehner told the Dayton Daily News that year that the key to parties was good music and top tier guests. He said that at one, Newt Gingrich intended just to stop by and stayed for four hours. But he said that he didn't plan the parties anymore.

Still, his association to the parties stuck and they still are widely known as the Boehner Warehouse Party, even as he and his staff have put some distance from the soirees as he continued to climb the ranks of leadership.

It will be difficult to figure out just who shows up in Tampa.

Plans show seven security checkpoints outside the buildings and two more inside. The city plans to close the sidewalk next to the buildings along Franklin Street — partly to make room for a 10-by-20-foot smokers' tent.

Regardless of who attends, city officials are thrilled that the party has accelerated the rehabilitation of the Kress, a former department store built in 1929. The building was put on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1983, and received a local historic designation in 2006.

Its Renaissance revival architectural style, with its painted terra cotta clay exterior, makes it similar to the Tampa Theatre more than a block away. Jason, the owner, said she had been planning to install new alarms and storefront windows and doors, but pushed up the project so that they would go in before the parties.

"The RNC has breathed life into the Kress building," Buckhorn said. "It might be just a party, but it's the nudge that it needed."

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