Tampa Bay pulled off its biggest moment in the sun this week by preparing well, staying calm — and catching a couple of breaks. The Republican National Convention came off smoothly and with few complaints, save for the expected traffic slowdowns, some bus issues with convention delegates and the off-putting overwhelming security. Tropical Storm Isaac forced a one-day delay but avoided the area. There was no violence in the streets and no train wreck on the convention floor (except for Clint Eastwood). Now the bay area needs to build on what worked and address the challenges that have to be met to continue to compete with the nation's top metro areas.
Remarkably, Tampa made only two convention-related arrests the entire week and none after Monday, when the convention (and the protests) kicked into high gear. Tampa police Chief Jane Castor and Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee trained local and outside law enforcement officers in the art of patience and common sense. The restraint protected both the demonstrators' free speech rights and public safety.
Tampa changed its city code temporarily for the RNC to make it cheaper and easier for groups to gather and march. Those provisions should be made permanent. While bad weather kept the expected crowds at bay, there were protests nearly every day drawing hundreds of people. The events were peaceful and organized in most cases by local residents. The city should foster this civic expression by making the more accommodating code permanent.
Some businesses — hotels and the fancier restaurants — did well. But many downtown businesses had a terrible week, frustrated by the Secret Service's heavy hand with steel barricades that blocked access to mom-and-pop businesses.
Longer term, the region made inroads in selling itself to corporate America. The Tampa Bay Partnership made hundreds of contacts to market the region as an incubator for technology start-ups, commercial medicine, manufacturing and other skilled industries. Civic leaders wooed site consultants, hoping they will tell Tampa Bay's story to business leaders looking to relocate. It will take time to nurture the diverse, dynamic environment that local leaders are selling, but they need to stay on point and keep up the teamwork.
The city is not responsible for the RNC mismanaging its own bus system for shuttling delegates in and out of downtown. But the RNC wouldn't have needed a faraway staging area vulnerable to traffic breakdowns if the region had a functional mass transit system of its own. This remains a region too dependent on cars and plagued by poor urban planning that left the west side of Tampa congested and the east side a ghost town. The public infrastructure — sidewalks, streets, lighting and the like — need serious improvement. The city also made a mistake in signing over its signature downtown riverfront park, Curtis Hixon, as part of the host agreement. This was a waste of a beautiful waterfront that the public paid for, and it should have been open to the public.
Tampa Bay leaders came together to showcase what the region has and to offer. And the exposure helped raise the civic conversation about what's possible. As Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn noted this week, Florida had not hosted a national political convention for 40 years, and over that time, the bay area has emerged from the shadows. The challenge now is to turn the satisfaction from this week to more lasting accomplishments — ones that continue to raise the region's profile and build a strong metropolitan area.