Despite some fumbles, a big win
The local impact of the Republican National Convention can be calculated many ways. From the perspectives of money spent by attendees and national exposure for the region, the benefits are impressive. But there were disappointments beyond the control of local leaders, law enforcement and volunteers, whose work won rave reviews. Travel by chartered bus was often frustrating. The Florida delegation one night spent four hours on the trip back to their hotel. You can drive to Jacksonville faster than that. Transportation weaknesses again surfaced as a potential limit on the city's ambitions. Tampa's downtown security, much of it dictated by the U.S. Secret Service, prevented guests from experiencing the city the way it usually is, bustling with life in the center and beautifully serene around its waterfront edges.The urban landscape was buttoned down and zipped up tight. The security was effective and in places disorienting. Pedestrians slogging along dreary, fenced-in corridors to the convention zone could be excused for thinking they had mistakenly come to a city preparing for the running of the bulls. Most visitors never saw the scenic River Walk a block or two away. It was deserted because you couldn't walk very far on it. Security fences closed off the bridge underpasses. That was unfortunate. Outside the fenced area, the downtown was surprisingly quiet. "We expected throngs," said Rose Arnone, working Wednesday in the Old Tampa Book Company on Tampa Street. On a normal weekday, the sidewalks are full of people, she said, but not convention week. "We put political books in the window," she said. But the expected customers didn't walk past, and street parking was forbidden. Many of the thousands of delegates, guests and reporters attended private lunches and receptions, or grabbed a quick sandwich or piece of pizza at the Convention Center or Forum. Some of the larger news organizations had their meals catered. And some larger restaurants outside the immediate downtown area "were killing it," Mayor Bob Buckhorn told us. "Some of them maybe had the best week they've ever had." We agree with his prediction that local winners from the convention will greatly outnumber losers. The amount of security may have appeared excessive, but it really worked. Police had been trained in how to defuse confrontations with protesters. The result was safe streets, very few confrontations or arrests, and no distractions from the business of the convention. The precautions also left few places to hide a bomb and, from the perspective of us peaceful civilians, dispose of trash. "Where's the trash can?" someone with an empty paper cup in hand asked a police officer. "I'll take that, sir," he said. And he put it in the back of a motorized cart. Such politeness was widely evident and mitigated the ubiquitous security presence. Strong, tall fences kept potential vandals away from government buildings, which were closed for the week. The buildings also would have been safe from a rhinoceros, should one have gotten loose from the zoo. One practical idea employed for the convention was the tent-covered sidewalk. An air-conditioned tent corridor led from the Convention Center to the Forum. It worked well, but felt like a cave. More practical for everyday use were the open-sided tents set up outside the Convention Center. They provided welcomed shelter from sun and showers without running up an electric bill or feeling claustrophobic. More tented sidewalks should be a permanent feature of the convention area, especially in summer. It's hard to immediately gauge the larger economic impact of the convention. What is clear is that the region, the host committee, the pro-business agencies and law enforcement personnel from around the state certainly did their part. "We trained hard," Buckhorn said, "but you never know until the whistle blows how you're going to play." The city and supporters easily played well enough to win. Buckhorn, in particular, was out and about throughout the event, attending to every detail possible. It was an impressive performance. Police Chief Jane Castor and Sheriff David Gee also demonstrated remarkable leadership. It may not have been the sort of week that registers high on the Mardi Gras fun scale, but it was a milestone event in the city's development. For a week that began with a tropical storm warning and fears of 15,000 protesters, unremarkable is good. The big news was made inside the Forum, where it belonged. Thanks to everyone who prepared for the worst and gave the city their best.