Jon Stewart's Daily Show showed a woman snatched into the air by a giant palmetto bug. E! News sent Ross Mathews to Skin Tampa for a lap dance. And Piers Morgan talked to the Hollywood Reporter about canoeing the Hillsborough River and its "alligator-infested mangroves." (Thanks, Piers!) Yes, the eyes of the world turned to the Tampa Bay area last week for the Republican National Convention. But what everyone reported, tweeted and told the folks back home didn't necessarily come from the Chamber of Commerce script. The reviews aren't just a matter of civic pride. They're key to the prize that local leaders hoped to win from landing and hosting the convention: a giant-sized boost to the area's profile, increasing tourism, repeat visits and corporate recruitment. "When you say Florida, you're not just going to think about Miami and Orlando," said Ken Jones, president of the Tampa Bay Host Committee. "You're going to be hearing about Tampa Bay more and more." So how did Tampa Bay fare?
Conventioneers and residents alike had problems with a downtown full of 8-foot-tall fences, concrete barricades, khaki-uniformed police and Florida National Guard troops with assault rifles. Public spaces that Tampa is most proud of — Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and the Riverwalk — virtually disappeared behind heavy steel mesh.
"Tampa is beautiful, but with all the police and barricades and security, it also felt like it was an occupied country," said Chris Heimburger, 56, of Houston.
"It's a sight I don't want to see in America," said Scott MacDonald, 40, an alternate delegate from Massachusetts. "They could have toned it down."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he understands, but keeping visitors and downtown safe was more important, "even if we had to miss some of our better pictures."
"In a post-9/11 world, that's the reality we deal with," he said.
"I'd rather over-prepare, over-train and over-deploy and put an overwhelming show of strength on the streets," he said. "Had we not done that, and had we had incidents that the entire world would see over and over again, we would have lost in the long run."
Not surprisingly, the politics of the RNC itself and Tropical Storm Isaac dominated news stories out of Tampa. The heavy security and lack of civil unrest also got some attention.
But coverage seldom focused on the charms and folkways of the bay area.
Some reporters worked Cuban sandwiches into their dispatches. Many fewer mentioned the Lowry Park Zoo, and then often only in connection with a speech that controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio gave there. An Australian correspondent described a painting of melting clocks and flying bullets at the Dalí Museum, but strictly as a metaphor for how the Republican Party sees the United States.
He also described the Dalí as being "near Tampa."
A few of the Tampa Bay area's prized jewels seemed to escape the notice of every single one of those 15,000 members of the media who converged on Tampa.
The Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks did not turn up once in newspapers outside of Florida, according to a Nexis search of two weeks' worth of national and international coverage before and during the RNC. Nor did any print journalist seem to mention that the Hillsborough County School District won a $100 million teacher effectiveness grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (This was something that local boosters actually talked about promoting during the runup to the RNC.)
Still, the attention that came with hosting the RNC was not a bad thing, says a branding expert, even if the coverage lacked grace notes of local color.
"Overall, the image was positive," said Kelly O'Keefe, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and chief creative officer at the public relations and ad agency CRT/tanaka. "It's always nice if you get more details in, but I wouldn't be deeply concerned about that."
It "definitely helps in terms of awareness and visibility and presence" for a city to be associated with a national political convention, especially if the event goes well, said Kevin Lane Keller, the E.B. Osborn professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
Hosting a convention probably doesn't provide the boost it once did because television networks have cut their coverage, but "making any city appear to be a major city, one of stature, is a good thing," Keller said.
Along the way, though, it means taking the bitter with the sweet. Many delegates came here from places with near triple-digit temperatures this summer but found arriving in Tampa like moving through a swamp.
"Just walked 6 blocks to Tampa Conv Ctr," tweeted Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz. "My shirt is soaked with sweat and my hair went curly. I'll take AZ dry heat any day!"
Generally, though, conventioneers said they loved the welcome they received.
"People who went to the New York convention said that in New York people were spitting at them and telling them off," said Cecilia Martinez-Salazar, 65, an alternate delegate from New Mexico. "Here in Tampa they were especially friendly."
They also praised everything from Busch Gardens to the layout of the interstates to the sweeping views of the water.
"It's beautiful. I'm coming back for sure," said Sheila Palandjian, who attended the convention from Belmont, Mass., and spent time playing golf at the Vinoy resort and checking out the restaurants along Beach Drive in St. Petersburg.
To capitalize on the good impression, O'Keefe said local leaders need to keep people talking about the Tampa Bay area.
"Brands are built on momentum," he said. "The convention piqued all of our ears. We're listening. But we have to hear something."
More is coming, officials say. Hosting the RNC already has helped land a 1,000-room convention for next April, said Kelly Miller, president of Tampa Bay & Co., which promotes tourism in Hillsborough County.
That's also where Front Row Tampa Bay can come in.
During the convention, the online program spotlighted the best of the region's economy, delivering 17 hours of live programming aimed at RNC attendees and Internet viewers. Close to 14,000 online viewers watched some portion of Front Row. The marketing experiment produced a digital library of business stories tapping close to 125 local voices that continue to be available.
"This has never been done in economic development," said Stuart Rogel, president of the nonprofit Tampa Bay Partnership, the regional business development group that created Front Row Tampa Bay.
Mayor Buckhorn expects Tampa's image to grow and evolve for years as a result of the RNC.
But for now, he likes the images he has seen of his city, whether it's the panoramic views of the waterfront, the coverage of local preparations for Tropical Storm Isaac or the broad parody by the Daily Show.
"You can't go through your life taking yourself that seriously," he said. "If people remember Tampa, even for giant, man-eating palmetto bugs, that's all right. I'll take it."
Times staff writers Drew Harwell, Marissa Lang, Phillip Morgan, Keeley Sheehan, Katherine Snow Smith, Jamal Thalji and Susan Thurston contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.