Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Tampa officials elated over RNC, but businesses? Not so much


Hours after the Republican National Convention ended, Tampa officials on Friday said the city's biggest week ever could not have gone better.

"We did it," a buoyant Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "I think we have set the standard for how these events should run."

Police kept protests from escalating into violence and made just two RNC-related arrests. Officials saw only five cases of heat-related illness. But traffic was a mixed bag, and some businesses thrived, while others suffered.

Delegates said goodbye, and some said they'd be back.

"Oh my God, we loved it," Massachusetts alternate delegate Barbara McCoy, 60, said as she waited for a ride to the airport. "We went to the (Ybor City State) museum and saw the movie. And we went to a lot of cigar shops. It was fabulous."

With fences and barricades disappearing, here's how the city fared in four key areas.


At a typical Tampa Bay Buccaneers home game, police make 10 to 15 arrests. This year's Gasparilla pirate invasion saw 63 arrests. And at the 2008 RNC, police in St. Paul, Minn., made more than 800 arrests.

So just two RNC arrests?

One was a guy who officers said carried a machete on the official parade route on Sunday. The second was a protester who refused to remove a bandana masking his face — a violation in the city's temporary "Event Zone" — despite officers' repeated requests.

Police had expected 15,000 protesters. Instead, they got "maybe 2,000," estimated police Chief Jane Castor.

Tropical Storm Isaac appeared to keep many protesters home.

It helped that authorities swept downtown for suspicious items and made 21 different discoveries: pipes and sticks, 300 tiles stacked on a parking garage roof, bricks stashed in an electric box, a Mercury Cougar parked with medical supplies and riot gear.

Twice officials cleaned up sites, came back later and found more caches of potential weapons.

On the street, police tried to de-escalate potential confrontations. Repeatedly, protesters baited officers, jumping toward them, dangling bagels in their faces like doughnuts and taunting them. ("Get those animals off those horses!") Over their radios, majors reminded them, "Remember your training. Stay calm."

Castor said police looked at what protesters were trying to accomplish and tried to be as flexible as possible. If protesters wanted to take over an intersection briefly so photographers could take their picture, and "it's not hurting anyone, let them do it," she said.

But steel fences ringed government buildings, and police were everywhere, disturbing some residents and visitors alike.

"Like a communist country in a way," said former County Commissioner Jan Platt, who said she didn't fault police.

Buckhorn said he would rather have an overwhelming force "than not enough officers on the street and hours and hours of video of conflict."

Also noteworthy were the things that didn't happen.

Police didn't use tear gas or pepper spray or smoke or batons or bean-bag projectiles or their brand-new armored vehicle with the battering ram.

No officers were hurt.

No one sued Tampa over its protest rules, which happened before conventions in Boston, Denver and St. Paul, Minn.

Nor did Tampa see any property damage beyond graffiti. The cost to fix that? "A couple of cans of paint," Buckhorn said.


All five cases of heat exhaustion, sunburn or other heat-related incidents involved police or other first responders. Authorities received no reports of heat-related injuries for either protesters or conventioneers, Hillsborough County Health Department spokesman Steve Huard said.


A clear picture of the RNC's economic impact likely will take months to emerge. Boosters estimate direct spending for the RNC will total $175 million or more, with the money coming from the government, donors who gave to support the convention and delegate spending on hotel rooms, meals, transportation, gifts and other purchases. But an early snapshot shows both winners and losers.

"Crazy awesome.'' That's how Dave Ward, co-founder of Buddy Brew Coffee, described his week. The South Tampa-based coffee shop had two espresso bars at the event: one at the Google Lounge in the Tampa Convention Center and another at MSNBC's Morning Joe show broadcast from Channelside.

Ward estimates he served 5,500 drinks over the four days at the Google Lounge, where the line was sometimes 30 people deep.

He went through about 600 pounds of coffee, compared with 150 pounds during an average week. That included the Buddy Brew store on Kennedy Boulevard, which did so-so business.

"It was absolutely unbelievable,'' he said.

But James Lanza, co-owner of five restaurants of S Howard Avenue, said business was slow at Tampa's dining and drinking hub. Daily Eats did okay, but Lime and Ciccio and Tony's were "mediocre at best.'' The Lodge had two private parties, including one by House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday night, but otherwise did not pack in the late-night crowd. Based on research he had done on past conventions, he wasn't surprised.

"Honestly, Howard Avenue was not busy unless you had a private party,'' he said. "It hurt us and our business was not up to par. We would have done better without the RNC.''


It was smooth one moment, aggravatingly slow the next.

Legal assistant Cheryl Pereira, 53, got caught in a jam heading to the Fort Brooke parking garage where vehicle searches triggered backups onto Tampa Street and Kennedy Boulevard.

But paralegal Stacie Lynn, 35, left her home at 5:30 a.m. to be at work by 7 and didn't see much congestion at all.

"It usually takes 45 minutes to an hour to get here, but leaving so early, I just flew," she said.

Officials had urged downtown workers to arrive early, and they did. The morning rush hour became 7 to 8 a.m., not the usual 8 to 9 a.m.

Despite the bottlenecks and occasional slowdowns, "there were no significant delays," Tampa transportation manager Jean Duncan said. Officials had expected worse.

Times staff writers Rich Shopes, Jodie Tillman and Bill Varian contributed to this report.

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