Officials address downtown concerns about RNC
TAMPA - The questions Wednesday morning from Tampa's downtown business operators reflect the public anxiety about how August's Republican National Convention will affect daily life in the city. Will there be parking on the street and in city-owned garages? (Yes, away from the convention, and no, but close to them.) Will the city insure business owners against vandalism by protesters? (Unlikely.) Should people living in the city's Event Zone leave for the week? (Probably not.)The answers came from this month's guests at the Tampa Downtown Partnership's breakfast meeting: City Attorney Jim Shimberg, Police Chief Jane Castor, and Matt Becker, chief operating officer of the RNC Host Committee. All three tried to assure downtown residents and business owners that there's little to fear from the RNC, which will bring thousands of delegates, journalists and protesters into downtown the last week of August. Echoing Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Castor urged everyone to carry on as usual despite the crowds. She suggested people come out to see a once-in-a-lifetime event. "It is our intent to make this a very safe and enjoyable event for everyone," Castor said. With less than three months to go before the convention starts, city officials continue trying to button down the details. The biggest question — Where will the Secret Service security fence fall? — won't be answered until four to six weeks before the event, Shimberg said. Until then, Castor offered this as a likely scenario: "Everything north of Kennedy should be fine." The same can't be said for residents and businesses on Harbour Island, parts of which fall within a city-designated Event Zone encompassing downtown, Ybor City, and parts of Hyde Park and the University of Tampa. Event Zone rules spell out what protesters and others may wear and carry downtown during the RNC. Within the zone, police will be able to confiscate an array of items that could be used as weapons or shields against police. The list runs from water pistols to gas masks. It doesn't include licensed concealed handguns, which state law protects from local regulation. Gov. Rick Scott recently refused Buckhorn's request to ban guns from the Event Zone using his emergency powers. For the RNC, police plan to follow a post-hurricane plan for Harbour Island, Castor said. That means vetting the people who live, work and do business there ahead of the RNC and providing them special access passes, she said. "Harbour Island will be impacted, but it's not going to be shut down," she said. Meanwhile, the city is taking applications from groups seeking to use city parks for protest events. It continues to spend millions on security gear for the thousands of extra law enforcement officers coming to bolster local patrols. Castor said city officials have studied past political conventions in hopes of avoiding the mistakes made during those events. The city also sent 20 people to the NATO summit in Chicago this month to see firsthand the tactics used by police and protesters. Castor said one of her biggest concerns during the week of the RNC will be the heat. Lots of people visiting the RNC — delegates and protesters alike — will probably be getting their first taste of late summer in Tampa. That was the reason the city originally planned to limit parades to one hour, Castor said. "We figure no one's going to last more than an hour in the August heat," she said. Complaints from likely protest groups prompted the city to expand parade times to 90 minutes. The city's Event Zone, OK'd by the City Council this month, gives protest groups free rein on city sidewalks — provided they don't block traffic — and even opens the soon-to-be-named parade route to spontaneous events between scheduled parades. Castor said the city is urging companies that make deliveries downtown to do them early in the day during the convention to avoid traffic and other conflicts. John Newton, readiness manager for Hillsborough County Public Utilities, gave voice to the quandary many downtown businesses find themselves in as the RNC approaches. The building's 98 workers will relocate for the week, but utility officials remain undecided about whether to fence off the building. "We have a lot of glass," Newton said. "We want to make sure we take prudent steps to secure the building." At the same time, he said, there's no desire to turn the building into a fortress. "We want to put our best foot forward," he said. "But, again, we want to make sure our facility is still there when it's all over."
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