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One year out: Preparations under way for 2012 GOP convention

TAMPA - One year from now, the eyes of the nation will be on Tampa as Republicans from across the country converge on city to select their next presidential candidate. The 2012 Republican National Convention is expected to draw more than 50,000 party faithful, delegates, news media and protestors to the city for the weeklong event. Planning for the convention has been under way for the past year, and while it might not be visible to the public yet, preparations are taking shape in ways large and small. To date, event organizers say more than 75 venues and 15,000 hotel rooms have been reserved. Law enforcement officials have issued a nationwide call for more than 4,000 additional officers and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is already training police in crowd control.
Meanwhile, event organizers are planning to enlist about 8,000 volunteers in the next several months to help out with convention-related planning and preparations. "We're exactly where we need to be, we're right on schedule," Ken Jones, president of the Tampa Bay Host Committee said on Thursday. John Schueler, president of Florida Communications Group, which owns the Tampa Tribune, is a committee member. The event, to be held the week of Aug. 27, will cost more than $120 million, according to figures from the host committee, a nonprofit that is raising money for the convention. Money raised includes $55 million in private donations, an $18 million grant to the RNC from the Federal Election Commission and $50 million from Congress. To date, the host committee has raised about $15 million in tax-deductable donations and in-kind contributions from a mix of corporations and individuals, Jones said. Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he is "confident" that preparations for the event are on track. "We're organized, everybody is on the same page, and we know what we are doing," he said. "Our goal is to host the best political convention that the RNC has ever had." Still, Buckhorn said he is getting "frustrated" with the slow pace of approving federal funding for the event. The money from Congress will go for additional law enforcement, surveillance and other necessary security costs, but legislation to provide that funding is tied up in congressional committees. "They've got to move on it," Buckhorn, a Democrat, said. "Without that money there's no convention." Citing a tight budget, the city has pledged support and resources for the convention, but no city funding. Any expenses incurred from the use of police, fire, public works or other services would have to be paid back under a contract between the city and the RNC. Local Republicans are already getting into party mode, with at least two year-out" events planned for this weekend, including an invitation-only bash on Treasure Island and a get-together with Republican Party of Florida Chair Dave Bitner to be held Saturday night. "People are getting very excited," Deborah Cox-Roush, chair of the Hillsborough County Republican Party. "Millions of people across the world are going to see our beautiful city and state. It's not only great for Florida Republicans, it's going to be great for Florida."   * * * * *   If previous conventions are any indication, the event will pump more than $170 million into the local economy, and businesses are already lining up for a slice of the profits. Nikki Manecke, manager of the Luxury Box restaurant on Channelside Drive, said she has rented out her business to an unnamed cable news network. "My employees, facilities, food, drinks, everything, for the whole month," she said. Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, said planning is underway for beautification projects to spruce up the downtown ahead of the event. "Right now, we're compiling an inventory of what we will need to improve," she said. There is still a litany of issues event organizers will need to work out between now and next year, from connectivity, traffic and security concerns to the threat of hurricanes. With hundreds of news organizations covering it, the convention is expected to push the limits of local electric, cable, and fiber-optic lines running in and out of event venues. "This is the second biggest media event in the world, next to the Olympics," Jones said. During the convention, tens of thousands of visitors will travel throughout the Bay area to eat, shop, visit the beaches and socialize with fellow delegates. In the evening, they will come from nearly 100 hotels in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to the St. Pete Times Forum and Tampa Convention Center for convention-related parties and activities. "The challenge will be to get people in and out of the convention area without disrupting the lives of those who live and work here," said Irv Lee, the city's public works director. The U.S. Secret Service is leading security for the event and those preparations – such as establishing a perimeter around the convention area to keep the protestors out – are being hammered out in closed-door meetings with law enforcement and city officials. The city has also started soliciting bids from private security companies to install 100 to 150 surveillance cameras at unlikely-to-be-disclosed locations downtown. "We're still very much in the planning process," said Laura McElroy, a spokeswoman for the Tampa Police Department. "We haven't even nailed down a footprint for the event." And, with the event to be held during the height of the hurricane season, organizers will have come up with contingency plans for dealing with possible disruptions from storms. "This is Florida," Jones said. "We know how to deal with hurricanes."

cwade@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7679

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