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Sunday, Sep 24, 2017
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Tampa spruces up, prepares for world stage during RNC

TAMPA - Hedges are razor-sharp, the balustrade on the Bayshore is a fresh, dazzling white, and at night, reflections of Tampa shimmer on the Hillsborough River, its five downtown bridges bathed in soothing lights. Our workaday city cleans up well. Eventually this week, come hell or high water — more likely, the latter — the Republican National Convention finally will get under way, and Tampa is ready for her close-up. "This is our opportunity to show off our city on a world stage," says head cheerleader and mayor, Bob Buckhorn. "It's our coming-out party."
But if Tampa is a debutante ready for her national curtsy, she also might be the girl with frizzy hair and soggy stilettos. Even soaking wet, from a hurricane, a storm surge, a tropical storm or just the typical August double-punch of heat and humidity, Tampa is one tough cookie, a diverse place with a backbone and plenty of history. It's not the first time the city has held its breath as the weatherman's spaghetti models lace up the state, hoping whatever bad boy storm is heading our way passes us by. It usually does, by the way, and knock on wood. The city's not new to a big party, either. We've hosted four Super Bowls, three more than our Buccaneers have won. But Tampa never has seen the likes of the upcoming convention. (And the name is Tampa, by the way. Those outsiders who believe they'll fly into Tampa Bay should get ready to paddle.) About 65,000 visitors are expected, and the RNC Tampa Bay Host Committee estimates they will spend between $175 million to $200 million during their stay. So far, the city's been battered by an unkind national media, who've called her "seedy," "America's hottest mess," and "God's waiting room." Goes to show what the media know. The latter slur refers, of course, to St. Petersburg, Tampa's neighbor to the west. Preparations for the mammoth event involve more than planting date palms, stocking high-priced booze and making reservations at Bern's. Worries about violent protesters and terrorists are bringing 3,500 law enforcement officers to supplement Tampa police and Hillsborough sheriff's deputies. The Secret Service is being secretive. Law enforcement will wear matching khaki uniforms and have some fancy new gadgets and bikes, along with full riot gear. Cameras are mounted all over the place. The Forum, site of the convention, is fort-like in its protection, encircled with 8-foot fences, checkpoints and scores of armed guards. Traveling in downtown this week will be a daunting experience, with protesters, pedestrians, delegate buses and big shots' limos sharing the streets — those that are open, anyway. It wasn't a cinch that Tampa would win the convention on this, its third try, up against Phoenix and Salt Lake City. Although Florida is a crucial state for a Republican win in November, the state hacked off the party by holding its primary early, in violation of party tradition. A grudging truce eased tensions, although Florida lost a few delegates' votes as a slap on the wrist. But everyone knows the delegates are not here simply to register their presidential choices with dignity and aplomb. They're also looking for a good time. And Tampa knows how to dance. Ybor City, home to cigar-rolling immigrants from Italy, Cuba and Spain in the 1800s, is the most colorful place in town, with restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. Even the GaYbor business district is hanging out red, white and blue bunting alongside its rainbow flags to welcome delegates who happen by. And, of course, there's that whole seedy thing. Tampa may be best known nationally for its preponderance of gentlemen's clubs, the more notorious ones along Dale Mabry Highway. Buckhorn hopes all the polish and care has helped chip away at the ol' girl's reputation as a place for scantily clad dancers, their dollar-waving fans, even the mob. This could be it. So bring on the party, even if it's a little damp. "We've been getting ready for a year and a half," Buckhorn says, "and we're excited."

dkoehn@tampatrib.com (813) 295-8264

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