CLEVELAND — Maybe Tampa was 10 years too early in hosting a political convention.
I walked toward my gate Friday in Cleveland's Hopkins International Airport and, as I often do in airports, thought to myself how much nicer and easier Tampa International is.
But this time — and not just because three different cheerful volunteers handed me free water and thanked me for coming to the convention — I had to admit Cleveland showed itself off better hosting the Republican National Convention than Tampa did four years ago.
These are similarly sized cities, with nearly 400,000 people each, and both share similar something-to-prove attitudes that convention cities like New York or Philadelphia don't. Both had bids to host a political convention rejected before they landed the GOP. Both have the challenge of limited downtown hotels and had to house some of the 50,000 conventioneers in less than convenient locations. (Staying in Clearwater Beach sure beats staying in Akron, of course.)
What mainly set Cleveland apart was its downtown.
In 2012, Tampa had a vast, fenced-in security zone surrounding the Tampa Bay Times Forum and the convention center — and not much immediately outside that security zone. Anyone who wanted to explore Tampa or grab a bite or a beer or hit a private party had to hoof it a long distance or drive.
"I love Tampa, and I love Florida. But I remember my feet were killing me because of the security perimeter and all the walking. If you wanted to actually go out and explore Tampa, it was killer," said Apollo Fuhriman, a delegate from Washington state, contrasting that to Cleveland.
Cleveland had two separate, smaller security zones — one around the media center at the Cleveland Convention Center and the other around the Quicken Loans Arena, where all the speeches were held. Buses constantly shuttled thousands of reporters back and forth. Immediately outside the arena, restaurants set up tents to serve local specialties, beer and booze, and bands played.
Downtown Tampa is undergoing a renaissance and building boom, but it hasn't grown as much as Cleveland, which has seen dramatic revitalization in the two decades since the Cavs decided to move downtown.
In Cleveland, visitors easily came and went from the security zone to find nearby restaurants or shops.
"It's a totally different feel than Tampa, very inviting," said USF political scientist Susan MacManus, who lived in Cleveland about 20 years ago. "Cleveland has a vibrancy that's relatively new."
A looming tropical storm did put a slight damper on the opening of Tampa's convention in 2012, but that was quickly forgotten. Likewise, both conventions opened with widespread anxiety about potentially violent protests that never happened.
The biggest difference was Cleveland's ability to make convention-goers feel as if they were attending an event in the city rather than in a locked-down fortress of security.
"The big difference was there was nothing right around there that people could walk to in Tampa. It seemed like every time we went anywhere we had to get on a bus. Every venue you would go to, there was nothing around that you could really walk to," said Louisiana delegate Charlie Buckels.
Make no mistake, the delegates I spoke to mostly raved about the hospitality in Tampa.
Donna Hughes of Oklahoma specifically recalled amazing food and wonderful air conditioning at the opening night bash at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Cleveland's welcome party was hot and outdoors by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She also found the Tampa Bay Times Forum, now named Amalie Arena, more comfortable.
Stacking up the potential of these two great cities — one an old American city of the Rust Belt, the other a new American city of the Sun Belt — it's easy to imagine a visitor from Cleveland heading home from Tampa Bay wishing her town could learn a few things.
Just think of the giant image boost Tampa could have had if Jeff Vinik's ambitious pedestrian-friendly Channelside redevelopment plan had been completed before the 2012 convention. By the time Chelsea Clinton or Ivanka Trump is ready to accept the presidential nomination, we should be ready for another close-up.
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.