Monday, July 16, 2018

RNC taking over Tampa Bay Times Forum for six weeks of convention prep

TAMPA — Today is the first of many move-in days for the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

For the next six weeks, the convention will be the forum's sole tenant as it undertakes a $20 million project to set the stage for Mitt Romney's nomination. With an average of 200 to 300 workers on site any given day, there's a lot to do.

The Tampa Bay Storm arena football team played its last home game of the season at the Times Forum on Saturday night, and the RNC officially takes over the venue today. It will be a light day, with workers mainly pulling back retractable seats to open up the arena floor and bringing equipment trailers to the site.

Starting Monday, the pace picks up, with 20 tasks on the to-do list. Those include starting to remove and store about 3,000 seats.

That will help create room for:

• The stage, about 58 feet wide and 40 feet deep, where Romney will give his acceptance speech. It will go on the same side of the forum as the locker rooms, which will be used for backstage operations and as green rooms.

• A four-tiered platform for television cameras and news photographers.

• Two news media platforms with slightly more than 300 seats, plus about 30 individual standup reporting positions for television broadcasters.

Early tasks include installing the rigging, sound and lights for the convention, scheduled for Aug. 27-30. The lights will not just illuminate the stage. That's because the delegates make news, too, so the lighting on the convention floor needs to be broadcast-quality.

Freeman, the RNC's general contractor, also will transform the forum's luxury suites into studios for TV networks and local news affiliates.

First, a crew of about a dozen workers and two trucks take out everything they can — stadium seats, artwork, LCD televisions, video monitors, granite-topped and wood tables, bar stools, chairs, several 16-foot bars, even the doors — from the 30 suites, said Chris Hunt, CEO and general counsel of First Class Moving Systems.

It'll take about a week for them to remove everything, including the ceiling tiles. Convention organizers have learned they need to remove about a third of them to make way for TV production crews.

"They put lighting up in there," said convention chief operating officer Mike Miller. "If you don't take them out, they will."

All those things will be pad-wrapped or put in containers and covered with plastic, then stored for two months in a climate-controlled storage facility.

The suites' carpet and walls will be covered to protect them from being ripped or scuffed. Then workers will build out the booths, including installing glass fronts in a few cases. Broadcasters pay for the makeovers, which can cost more than $34,000 per booth. (What the media pay Freeman is not part of the $20 million project estimate.)

"When it's over, you have to quickly bring all that back in and restore that suite to exactly what it was," Miller said.

• • •

The conversion also requires a lot of work behind the scenes.

Take electricity. At its peak, the RNC's convention campus, which includes the forum and the nearby Tampa Convention Center, could need up to 19 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 7,600 homes.

That estimate is based on the last night of the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia, when usage peaked at more than 16 megawatts, plus a 20 percent reserve.

At the forum, getting ready to meet the demand has entailed installing a transformer — a permanent upgrade where the RNC and the forum split the cost — to add 2 megawatts of capacity.

But bringing the power into the building is only part of the challenge. Electricity also must be routed to the right places.

That's where MJM Electric of Tampa comes in.

"Everyone in town wanted the job," MJM owner Mark Mazur said. Starting Monday, about 50 of his electricians will help install the wiring and cable for power, voice, data and video. (He still is looking to hire about 15 people for the job.) By comparison, when his company worked the Super Bowl in Tampa, he needed about 30 electricians for the prep work.

"We will do many, many miles of wiring," Mazur said. "Tens of miles."

After the convention ends, about 50 electricians will work another two weeks to remove everything.

MJM is one of seven contractors that Freeman has hired for the conversion. Several, such as First Class Moving Systems, are based in Tampa. Others are national companies with operations in Tampa or, in one case, Orlando.

"Everything that we can do that's available we do locally," said Greg Lane, Freeman's national project director.

The transformer upgrade is one of several improvements that already have taken place. The convention and forum also have split the costs of hanging long strips of sound-absorbing material to the ceiling of the venue to keep sound from bouncing around too much. It's a problem the RNC has seen in the past.

"In the Astrodome, they said you could shout at the 50-yard line, and somewhere in there that sound was still echoing 20 seconds later," Miller said.

And Bright House Networks, the RNC's official provider of video, high-speed data and landline voice services, began in May to put in the 48 miles of data cabling at the forum and convention center. "Where they're at, I don't know, but they've been on site for some time," Bright House spokesman Joe Durkin said.

A total of 5,000 business-class phone lines also are being installed in the forum and convention center, and Bright House has added 190 miles of single-strand fiber to its existing cable network in downtown Tampa.

• • •

Not all of the work is taking place inside the forum.

Outside, in the plaza, both the convention and Secret Service will put up large tents. The Secret Service's tents will shelter the metal detectors it uses to screen delegates, journalists and other conventioneers.

The RNC's tents, plus some covered walkways, will shelter delegates from the rain after they step off the charter buses that bring them from their hotels.

The convention also will build a 1,500-foot, air-conditioned walkway from the forum to the convention center. The walkway will be generally 15 feet wide, narrowing to about 10 feet in spots.

In addition to the forum, the RNC is scheduled to start work at the convention center on Monday. There, Freeman will build out media work space for TV networks, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, wire services and websites worldwide.

But that work will pause for five days later this month while the Florida Board of Bar Examiners administers tests to 3,600 aspiring lawyers. City officials required that work at the convention center stop for the Bar exam well before the RNC ever put its staff on the ground in Tampa.

"Apparently it takes pretty much the whole thing, and they don't want anybody even to whisper anywhere near there," Miller said of the Bar exam. "But the good thing is, you can do the media setup in four weeks. It'll be fine."

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