A year later: RNC boosted Tampa Bay's prospects, officials say

Held at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the 2012 convention’s economic impact added up to $214 million in direct spending.
Held at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the 2012 convention’s economic impact added up to $214 million in direct spending.
Published Aug. 26, 2013

TAMPA — Clint Eastwood's chair is gone and the first corporate relocation has yet to arrive, but local convention business is growing and the name "Tampa Bay" draws fewer blank stares.

One year ago this week, the region welcomed the Republican National Convention — a political hurricane that arrived the same morning as a near-actual hurricane, Tropical Storm Isaac.

It was a moment loaded with bad possibilities: Catastrophic weather. Explosive protests. Traffic chaos. All of the above.

None of it happened, and now officials say the RNC left tangible and intangible benefits that will pay off for years to come.

"It was our first time on the international stage, and I think we excelled," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "It fulfilled every expectation I had going in — and then some."

For one thing, the mayor said more and more non-Floridians think of Tampa — not just Miami and Orlando — when they think of Florida.

"This goes from Germany to New York City," said Buckhorn, who has traveled domestically and abroad on city business this year. "When we show up now, people know who we are."

The RNC is a good calling card, officials say, because it suggests a lot about the region's ability to handle complex events and work with big companies.

"Our pipeline has never been as full as it is today," said Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.

The RNC positioned the bay area as a major economic player, he said, and he thinks that's related to successes that have followed — announced expansions by Bristol-Myers Squibb, Copa Airlines and Edelweiss Air, plus Bollywood's version of the Oscars coming to Tampa Bay.

"Did somebody say, 'I saw you had the convention. I want to move my business'?" Homans said. "Economic development doesn't work that way. It's a long process and it has to do with positioning and perceptions. The RNC helped in an extraordinary way when it came to that."

• • •

The convention's economic impact added up to $214 million in direct spending, according to a study from the Tampa Bay Host Committee.

More than half of that consisted of telecommunications or electrical upgrades, but sales also rose for hotels, seafood distributors and others that got RNC business. As the money spent directly was paid out in wages or re-spent, the study estimates the total economic impact rose to $404 million.

But the benefits were not spread evenly, and for Rick Drury, the convention was a disaster.

"It was just a police state," said Drury, who owns Precinct Pizza on Channelside Drive. "It completely strangled business."

Drury had hired extra staff, but instead of tripling his business, he lost $5,000. It would have been worse, he said, except for the Ron Paul supporters who camped out at his shop after the convention kicked them out.

Channelside and other streets were closed, so Drury couldn't deliver pizzas. Inside the RNC's security perimeter, delegates looked through steel mesh at guards with automatic weapons and did not wander out.

Drury doesn't blame them.

"No way I would leave that perimeter," he said. "I would think it was like Escape from New York out there."

• • •

Tourism officials, however, say they have to look no farther than their reservation books to see a direct benefit of the convention.

"We're booking conventions now that I would say are directly related to us hosting the RNC," said Santiago Corrada, president of Hillsborough County's tourism agency, Visit Tampa Bay.

Three examples:

• The three-day IBM Smarter Commerce Summit comes to Tampa in May for the first time. It will draw 3,500, fill 10,000 room nights and deliver $5.1 million in economic impact.

• Tampa's first Siemens Medical Solutions Innovations for Healthcare IT conference brings 4,300 room nights next August.

• The American College of Genetics and Genomics will make its first visit to Tampa in 2016, filling 4,600 room nights.

This kind of business is important because conventions spend more money than tourists on banquet rooms, catering and entertainment and because it fell during the recession.

In 2006, group bookings for 10 or more hotel rooms made up 46 percent of the Tampa-St. Petersburg market's bookings, according to Smith Travel Research. In 2012, they fell to 33 percent.

Now group bookings seem to be rebounding, rising to 45 percent for the first half of 2013.

Last week, Corrada said, Visit Tampa Bay made one of its best sales missions ever to Washington. For three days, he and his staff pitched Tampa to rooms packed with meeting planners.

"Standing-room only," he said. "We couldn't fit them all in."

Still, most conventions and smaller meetings are planned six months to a year in advance, so it's too early to say how much the RNC helped revitalize Tampa's convention business. It's also hard to separate the RNC from the larger economic recovery.

"I've always said that our biggest obstacle is name recognition," Corrada said. "Tampa doesn't resonate like a Las Vegas, like a New York, like a Chicago.

"But if we keep having RNCs and Bollywoods, you know what? Our name recognition increases."

• • •

The RNC's legacy isn't only economic.

There are also those surveillance cameras, plus the other law enforcement goodies purchased with a $50 million federal grant for convention security.

In Tampa, the cameras have stayed on. They're not actively monitored, but police can go to the video as they did in November when a woman was attacked in a downtown parking garage.

During Gasparilla, police watching the cameras spotted an unattended backpack. Officers on the ground found the owner, who had inadvertently left it behind. The bomb squad was not called out. The parade went on.

In St. Petersburg, Mayor Bill Foster credits cameras purchased for the RNC with helping police reduce crime.

Tampa police also deployed mobile cameras bought for the RNC to shopping mall parking lots during the holidays, and loaned them to St. Petersburg for the Honda Grand Prix.

But the American Civil Liberties Union sees the cameras as intrusive, unnecessary, expensive and inadequately controlled.

"Our preference would be that the City Council simply not appropriate maintenance funds for the cameras and that they be gotten rid of or sold," ACLU Florida president Michael E. Pheneger said. "Failing that, we'd like to see policies developed (by elected officials) that would pretty strictly control their use."

Still, officials said the benefits of the RNC don't end with the cameras or bikes or analytical software the federal grant bought.

As a result of working together last year, law enforcement, emergency management and other officials from all over the bay area have experience that would pay off during a hurricane, Buckhorn said. And officers trained in and equipped for crowd control can be called up in a natural disaster or other emergency.

"After the RNC," Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said, "we're ready for it all."