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Tampa leaders say downtown is ready for Gasparilla, NHL on same day

TAMPA — Two events that will draw big crowds to Tampa are planned for the same weekend this January — the annual Gasparilla Parade of Pirates and the recently announced NHL All-Star celebration.

To city boosters, the convergence provides a golden opportunity to show off the downtown area to a national, even international audience.

To those who will be navigating the area Jan. 27, it's more like the perfect storm.

"It's probably best to not bring a car downtown, and use other modes of transportation if you need to be there," said Kelsy Van Camp, spokeswoman for the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

The Gasparilla parade, Tampa's signature event, draws more than 100,000 people, many of whom cram into downtown for the end of the parade route along Ashley Drive at around 5:30 p.m.

That's just before the likely start of one major event on the schedule of NHL All-Star Weekend — the All-Star Skills Competition in the 20,000-seat Amalie Arena downtown. The NHL announced Monday that Tampa would host the perennial showcase of its stars.

Professional hockey hasn't released a schedule of events yet, but last year, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the skills competition started at 7 p.m. the day before the all-star game.

What's more, there are usually events held outside the host arena that day, such as concerts and interactive opportunities.

More than 70,000 people attended the 2017 NHL All-Star celebration in Los Angeles, according to news reports.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn acknowledged the two events will require "juggling the logistics of a normal Gasparilla weekend."

But Buckhorn insists Tampa is "more than capable of rising to the occasion."

"Hockey fans will probably see a lot more pirates than a usual NHL All-Star game," Buckhorn said.

The route, street closures and hours of the parade will likely remain unchanged, including the final stretch in front of Curtis Hixon Park. No NHL events are planned at the park, which frequently hosts celebrations like those held in conjunction with January's College Football Championship at Raymond James Stadium.

Instead, to avoid traffic nightmares experienced during converged events in the past, Ybor City, Water Works Parks and Perry Harvey Sr. Park can host NHL activities, Buckhorn said. Lots around Amalie Arena will likely hold some, too.

Planners have eight months to figure out how best to marry the two events.

"It can expose Gasparilla and by extension, Tampa, to the entire sports world," Buckhorn said. "Hockey fans are going to have an amazing weekend experiencing something that they're not even aware exists right now."

Construction near Amalie Arena will add another wrinkle as work continues on the 40-acre redevelopment project of Strategic Property Partners, the joint venture of Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment.

But the roadwork that has impeded traffic the most should be complete by the end of summer, SPP spokeswoman Ali Glisson said, and the group is working to limit impact on the weekend's events.

"We're all in this together, and want to maximize success for the event and for the city," Glisson said.

Those who work in parking point to Tampa's history of hosting big events, including four Super Bowls and the 2012 Republican National Convention.

"It's not an issue," said Jason Accardi, chief executive of 717 Parking Enterprises, owners of private parking lots throughout downtown Tampa.

Parking lots he owns on the outskirts of downtown have empty spaces during Gasparilla, Accardi said.

Van Camp of the Downtown Partnership echoed that sentiment, noting that there are around 22,000 parking spaces downtown.

Skipping a downtown parking space altogether is another option, Van Camp said. Park in Ybor City and take the TECO Streetcar Line, she suggested, or the In-Towner trolley, the Downtowner electric shuttle, water taxis, traditional taxis or ride-share companies.

A good chunk of NHL activity attendees will be staying downtown. About 1,800 rooms have been made available near the stadium.

Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the service organization that owns and operates the parade, did not answer requests for an interview.

In 2001, Gasparilla was held the day before the Super Bowl in Tampa, ending just as Saturday's NFL festivities began. Traffic from the two events mixed.

A traffic consultant who had worked eight Super Bowls said at the time he had never seen anything like it, "except for Bangkok, Thailand."

More recently, in May 2016, 70,000 people converged on downtown Tampa for four events including a Lightning game at Amalie Arena, forcing the Straz Center to delay the start of a performance by 40 minutes.

Buckhorn said that the city learned its lessons after the Riverfest event two years ago exposed downtown's parking problems and poor planning for massive crowds.

Bill Wickett, executive vice president for communications with the Lightning, agrees, pointing to the smooth staging of this year's Gasparilla parade — held the same day as two Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus shows at Amalie Arena.

"We will embrace the opportunity to integrate the two events where appropriate," Wickett said, "showcasing all our community has to offer on an international stage."

The NHL is seeking to work with the parade and details will be announced at a news conference scheduled Thursday morning.

"We're going to come in and join forces in many ways," said Steve Mayer, NHL executive vice president. "And we're going to make this, we hope, one of Tampa's greatest weekends ever."

Times staff writers Rick Danielson and Joe Smith contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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