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National defense symposium in Tampa postponed due to shutdown

A major national conference that would have brought more 4,000 visitors to Tampa next week, filling hotel rooms and restaurants and bringing together intelligence agency and military leaders and defense industry behemoths, is the latest victim of the government shutdown.

The GEOINT 2013 Symposium, billed as “the preeminent event of the year for the defense, intelligence and homeland security communities,” has been scrubbed, according to its organizers at the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, who say the inability of key personnel to travel because of the shutdown is to blame. The conference will be held in spring 2014.

The symposium was expected to produce an economic impact of $5 million for Tampa resulting from more than 7,000 contracted hotel room nights, according to Adam DePiro, director of convention sales for Visit Tampa Bay.

But the real economic impact goes beyond that, said DePiro, because there were likely many more hotel rooms that would have been booked in addition to those contracted at the four hotels near the Tampa Convention Center.

“As you well know, we are operating under the significant constraints of a government shutdown,” organizers wrote in a letter Wednesday evening to those who registered for the conference, which was scheduled to take place at the Tampa Convention Center Oct. 13-16. “Recently the U.S. House of Representatives passed the ‘Pay Our Military Act,’ which allowed most Defense Department personnel to return to their jobs alongside the excepted personnel who were still working. However, the act also included language that has made it impossible for personnel to travel (except in direct support of operational forces) or attend events — including the GEOINT 2013 Symposium.”

The postponement will have a “huge impact” on the local economy, said Gregory Celestan, chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

“All the major hotels in the area were booked,” he said. “There were receptions at Jackson’s and other restaurants every night. There were seminars and other things planned, and the Tampa Convention Center was booked Monday through Thursday. There is no way in a short period the hotels will be able to re-book those rooms.”

Celestan, also chief executive officer of Celestar Corp., which has government contracts, said the postponement will add to the woes faced by the defense industry, because the symposium was a chance for contractors to meet with decision makers and find out what they need in the coming years.

Buffeted by automatic spending cuts called sequestration, defense contractors are facing great uncertainty with the government shutdown, said Celestan, whose company has several potential contracts on hold. He has already instituted a hiring freeze and pay cuts, and furloughs loom if the situation doesn’t improve, he said.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in addition to an immediate loss of about $750,000 to the convention center, the postponement will have dramatic ripple effect across the local economy.

“It is utterly juvenile and ridiculous to find ourselves in this situation,” he said, blasting the politicians in Washington. “We saw the impact of furloughs and now we see the impact on the local businesses as a result of their unwillingness to reach across party lines and find a solution.”

As of last Friday, the conference, slated to be held in Tampa for the first time, “had been poised for success on par with previous years and actually enhanced with the addition of a number of new and exciting elements,” organizers wrote. “Government and military registration, both U.S. and international, was the highest ever, as a percentage of total registration. We are one of the few events this year to fill downtown Tampa nearly to capacity, and the excitement has been palpable, despite the challenges associated with sequestration. However, the new legislation, subsequent legal interpretations, and resultant directives have drastically changed the environment.”

However, with the ongoing shutdown, initiated because of a bitter partisan divide in Congress over provisions of the Affordable Care Act, organizers realized that they would be “simply unable to commence and maintain the event in its original scope” because of the absence of government speakers for the programs and government customers from the exhibit halls.

“This is very difficult for everyone involved,” the letter stated, “and there are many immediate, second- and third-order effects. USGIF, our members, our exhibitors, our attendees, and our many partners in the greater Tampa area community will have to work through the effects imposed by these government decisions and the required postponement of our event.”

In addition to attracting upward of 4,000 attendees, the conference was slated to bring in 265 defense industry exhibitors, as well as “leading thinkers and military commanders,” Keith Masback, USGIF president, told The Tribune in an interview last month.

Among the projected keynote speakers were: Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Ranking Member, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; James R. Clapper Jr., Director of National Intelligence; Letitia A. Long, Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; Socom commander Adm. William H. McRaven, U.S. Navy, Commander; Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, Commander, Joint Special Operations Command; and David Kilcullen, Chief Executive Officer, Caerus Associates.

“The exciting part of being in Tampa this year is that right there at MacDill Air Force Base are U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central command,” said Masback. ”The last 12 years they have been incredibly astute, demanding intelligence customers in terms of supporting global and regional leaders and commanders.”

USGIF is “the only organization dedicated to promoting the geospatial intelligence tradecraft and building a stronger GEOINT Community across industry, academia, government, professional organizations and individual stakeholders,” according to the organization’s website.

Organizers say they are now planning to bring the event back to Tampa in the spring, even though that will create logistical and planning problems.

“We regretfully understand this may put our event closer to or overlapping with some other events,” according to the letter. “Unfortunately, this is the only time in the first half of the year open for the Tampa Convention Center and surrounding hotels.”

At least one event associated with the symposium will go on.

Shooting with SOF, a charity event to raise money for the MARSOC Foundation and the Gallant Few, two military charities, will still take place as planned, said organizer Scott Neil, a retired Green Beret and Silver Star recipient.

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