Mega-events are kind of old hat for Tampa. Over the last 30 years, the city has put on four Super Bowls. Only Miami has hosted more in that time, giving Cigar City something of a reputation for successfully accommodating, wining, dining (and stripping for) masses of out-of-towners.
But the Republican National Convention, which opens in Tampa on Monday, will be a different beast entirely. All those Super Bowls aside, for some city leaders, this is the one event they really wanted. "It will forever change people’s perception of the Tampa Bay area," a local economic development official told the Tampa Bay Times, in a lengthy story earlier this month detailing how the city had tried and failed, and tried and failed, and tried again to finally lure the RNC to town. (Ironically, Tampa was rejected last time around, when the Republicans went instead to St. Paul, Minnesota, because of "the possibility of a late-summer hurricane.")
After all those Super Bowls, wrote the Times' Michael Kruse, "city leaders still yearn for that one transformative event.”
Of course, a political convention also comes with a lot more downside than a major sports championship, what with all those anarchists and road closures and suspended constitutional rights expected next week. But on balance, this four-day political jamboree can put an aspiring city on the map in many ways that most other major events cannot. No one TV network has a monopoly on televising it. Journalists are flocking in from far outside the U.S. And a political convention has this singular way of reflecting national narratives about the state of our economy, culture and politics on the shoulders of a single city (see this story about climate change in Tampa, or this story about the effects of Tea Party politics in Tampa, or this story about Tampa’s special role as part of “America in microcosm”).
The convention, in short, will make the Super Bowl look like a preseason scrimmage. But if you’re still not convinced, consider these 10 signs from Tampa that no event tests, transforms, disrupts and magnifies a city quite like hosting the quadrennial coronation for a presidential candidate:
1. Tampa is expecting more than 15,000 members of the media. (For comparison’s sake, this year’s Media Day circus at the Indianapolis Super Bowl included 2,000 credentialed media). As part of the justification the city gave for its lengthy ordinance dictating how everyone should behave next week, city officials warned that "an estimated 10 billion media impressions of Tampa Bay will be made during the RNC."
2. The federal government is kicking in $50 million for security. Charlotte will get the same expenditure to help cover the cost of all the additional law enforcement and security protections that will blanket both cities.
3. The airport is getting fancy new bathrooms. All those out-of-town convention delegates and journalists will likely make their first stop in Tampa (and impressions of it) in the bathroom at Tampa International Airport. According to The Tampa Tribune, 10 of the 16 restrooms in the main terminal have been upgraded to “luxury hotel standards."
4. The city is getting fancy new foliage. At a cost of $2,200 each, the city planted 42 wild date palms along the boulevard leading to the convention. Nine of them fell over during Tropical Storm Debby, but they’re all standing tall now.
5. Local businesses are shutting down en masse. Sure, plenty of big municipal events can boost local businesses. But how many have the awesome power to convince them to shut down? At least 10 downtown bank branches are planning to close for the week (in fear of anarchists), as are numerous smaller businesses in the expectation that Tampa’s business-as-usual will go on hiatus the entire time the RNC is in town. Many of the city’s big attractions will also be closed to the public because they’ve been privately booked by convention-goers. The net effect of all of this is that it will be extra challenging to calculate the convention’s economic impact.
6. Hospitals in the area have been running drills and "mass casualty exercises." According to the Tampa Bay Business Journal: "During past political conventions in other cities, hospitals experienced anywhere from a 10 percent to a 30 percent increase in emergency room visits."
7. There will be FREE on-street parking! At least, there will be free on-street parking on the downtown streets that are still open for parking at all. The city is covering more than 900 parking meters during the convention (and hoping that the federal government will reimburse them $250,000 for the lost revenue). In parking terms, this makes the RNC the equivalent of an official holiday.
8. The local Swarovski store will be selling $1,600 crystal elephants. We’re hard-pressed to think of any Super Bowl swag that would be quite as precious… or fragile.
9. Local police plan to give up on pursing minor crime. If you return home from vacation during the RNC and find that your bicycle has been stolen, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office doesn’t want to get a phone call about it. They are expecting to have their hands full. Also, don’t call from minor car accidents. But do call if you’re witnessing a burglary in progress.
10. An entire highway is closing downtown. The RNC will finally accomplish – albeit temporarily – a long-held goal of many urbanists: the closing of five miles of a massive expressway that cuts through the downtown of a major U.S. city. The Selmon Expressway toll road will, however, be back up and running after the convention.
Top image: Scott Audette/Reuters