After years of preparation, the party finally starts tonight. The Republican National Convention kicks off with a huge reception at St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, the opening of a week that will draw tens of thousands to both sides of the bay. Downtown Tampa has cleaned up nicely. Thousands of new plants and acres of new sod line the gateways into the city's center. The police are ready for the crush of delegates and protesters that will descend on the convention site at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The entire region should use the single largest event we have ever hosted to raise our national profile, lure more tourists and attract more jobs.
The convention is really two events — one inside the Times Forum that is entirely scripted and another outside that promises to be more spontaneous. Besides nominating Mitt Romney for president, the Republicans will see a modern if compact downtown graced by new waterfront hotels, condos, restaurants and newly opened cultural venues, from riverfront museums and parks to the history center. The local business community has an impression to leave, too. It plans to use this opportunity to sell the region to the corporate leaders coming to town. The message: The bay area's young workforce and low costs — and the niche it is carving in the commercialization of security and medicine — make it the perfect place to do business.
The region certainly has a story to tell, given how far the area's political and civic leadership has come to tackle the most pressing challenges, from improving job development and tourism efforts to building a more functional transportation system. In that spirit, area leaders looked beyond county lines and partisan politics to welcome the Republicans and to organize what promises to be a showcase event. Aside from the tangible goodies that will remain and any business prospects, the convention preparation also has been a good exercise in coming to terms with a regional vision and a unified voice. That's the very approach it will take to keep the Tampa Bay Rays, create a regional transit system, continue enhancing higher education — and push a much broader agenda to keep the region competitive.
Of course, every spotlight can expose some warts. The nation's largest urban area without a light rail system likely will experience some travel headaches this week, particularly for commuters into downtown Tampa. Some other variables — violent protesters or extreme weather — can be managed but are outside government's ability to prevent. The city of Tampa spent months developing a balanced strategy for preserving public order while protecting the free-speech rights of protesters, but the police no doubt will be tested in the streets at some point. The crowds also will test the city's ability to handle a major event after years of pulling back on city services because of the recession.
The stakes for this region in hosting a well-run convention are in keeping with the importance of the presidential election. This event captures an international audience, and the attention will not all be focused on Romney. Tampa Bay will be on stage as well, and residents should look at the convention not as a hassle but a chance to be a part of political history and put the region's best foot forward. It may take time for new economic opportunities to appear, but the memories visitors take home will come from interactions big and small, in downtown Tampa and on the Pinellas beaches, and in public spaces and hotels across the region.
Tampa Bay has waited more than a decade for this moment. It is poised to reap the benefits from worldwide attention. And it is well-prepared to be a gracious host as it handles whatever comes — from protesters to hurricanes.