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Well-connected RNC party planner eyes two historic Tampa properties

TAMPA — A well-connected party planner who has created hot tickets at the last four Republican National Conventions wants to bring her elaborate warehouse parties to Tampa.

Joyce Gates of Alexandria, Va., this week filed applications with the city of Tampa to host private parties for 600 to 800 people. For a site, she's looking at two historic properties — the old trolley barn near Tampa Heights and the Kress and Woolworth buildings in downtown Tampa.

Gates, who once served as chief of staff to John Boehner before he became speaker of the House, founded her company, Warehouse Productions, in 1996. At the GOP convention that year, it converted an 1890s-era warehouse into what became known as "The Best Little Warehouse Party in San Diego."

The company went on to produce warehouse parties at Republican conventions in Philadelphia, New York and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

At the 2004 GOP convention in New York, the company re-created street scenes of New York inside Manhattan's once-infamous Tunnel Club for "The Party that Never Sleeps." Picking up the tab were some 68 major corporations and interest groups. That year, Boehner told the Dayton Daily News that he left the "Where the Convention Gets Unconventional" party in Philadelphia at 3:30 a.m. and 500 people were waiting to get in.

Gates could not be reached Friday about whether she's planning two parties or is simply looking at two possible locations for one event.

In her applications, however, she proposes similar events at each all four nights of the convention, which runs from Aug. 27-30. She's planning for 10,000 or more square feet of main event space, plus another 2,500 to 3,000 square feet for use as a jazz club. Festivities would start at 10 p.m., with a requested close of 4 a.m., an hour later than closing time for bars in Tampa.

Buffet catering would be provided by Bernini in Ybor City, and there would be barbecue, beans, slaw and grilled corn from Sharon's Smokin' Angel Foods. The parties would be staffed by 80 people, 10 of them private security, plus three to five off-duty Tampa police.

Warehouse Productions, known for taking rough-hewn industrial spaces and doing all-encompassing build-outs, says it would bring in its own air-conditioning and deluxe portable bathrooms — a 10-stall unit from Royal Restrooms.

Neither the Kress and Woolworth buildings nor the trolley barn are in the official list of event venues for the convention. The Kress and Woolworth buildings are between Franklin Street and Florida Avenue, south of Cass Street.

The trolley barn is on the eastern bank of the Hillsborough River a few blocks north of Interstate 275.

It is, says one longtime fan, a building with a lot of character.

"It's genuine," said Darren Booth, the development manager for a now-defunct redevelopment project. "It's not Disney World. It's a 100-year-old industrial building."

It's also a building with serious flaws, city officials say.

In a letter sent to a convention official on Tuesday — the same day Gates filed her application — Tampa director of planning and development Thomas Snelling said he understood that the convention was interested in using the trolley barn and might even "be able to provide the funding to address many of the code violations and concerns that exist in the building" so that a special event could take place there.

Then Snelling outlined just what that would take.

"The facility has serious and complex code issues and violations that need to be resolved prior to your group applying for a special event," he wrote.

Snelling added that the fire marshal agreed that an event could be staffed with fire marshals on scene to do a "fire watch," but organizers would still need to install a complete fire alarm system.

Until late 2010, the trolley barn had built up a reputation as an attractive venue for big parties.

But the parties ended after the Tampa Fire Marshal's Office inspected and found a range of safety problems.

As of Friday, "the fire issues have not been addressed," Fire Marshal Russell Spicola said.

Also, Snelling said, a licensed engineer would have to do a complete structural evaluation, including assessing the roof and truss system. Once that is done, repairs would have to include repair and replacing of the roof, decking and covering.

The property also would need a temporary wet-zoning to serve alcohol.

"The building has currently been declared unfit for human habitation and was placarded on Aug. 22, 2011," Snelling wrote. "Occupying the building would be a violation until the items mentioned above are addressed."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Well-connected RNC party planner eyes two historic Tampa properties 06/01/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 2, 2012 2:43pm]
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