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Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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O’Neill: GOP convention was Tampa’s chance on big stage

There’s nothing more predictable after a big regional event than the economic-impact study sure to follow. Within the last fortnight, Tampa has unveiled its post-GOP National Convention study to considerable ballyhoo and scrutiny. Officially it shows more than $200 million in direct impact and more than $400 million in indirect impact.

Critics, of course, can quibble about multiplier formulas and scrutinize the most tangible, immediate benefits — telecom/utility upgrades and security/surveillance additions. And I can personally attest to seeing how the military-occupation ambiance adversely impacted certain downtown merchants, whose expectations were poorly managed by city officials.

But here’s the context that matters most.

First, nothing awful happened here. San Francisco survived that earthquake, Dallas an assassination, Chicago the “police riot” Democratic Convention, New York the horrifics of 9/11 and New Orleans the devastation and tragedy of Katrina. But those are all major market/iconic cities with enough name recognition and acknowledged status to survive calamitous occurrences, natural and man-made. They’ve transcended any association with the unthinkable.

But Tampa, for all of its Megatrendy touts, Super Bowls, riverfront revitalization and I-4 anchorage, would not have fared nearly so well had a worst-case scenario happened here. We still don’t have the reputational chops and resilience to transcend an infamous association with a bludgeoning hurricane, anarchical torchings or terrorist nightmare while the rest of the nation and the international community looked on. Try being the Big Guava after that.

We’re making manifest progress, but others still see us as a second-tier market, however ascendant. We host a megapolitical convention, for example, and the national media still traffics in lap-dance, humidity and insect references. Mob-lore asides were practically complimentary. The point is this: Too many outsiders still need more convincing that Tampa is at least a peer of Orlando and Miami. That frustrating learning curve is still a reality, albeit an eroding one.

Another reality is that Tampa — through good meteorological fortune and over-the-top security preparation — never became a synonym for chaos and destruction. Recall Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s post-convention recap.

“I’d rather over-prepare, over-train and over-deploy and put an overwhelming show of strength on the streets,” he stated. “Had we not done that, and had we had incidents that the entire world would see over and over again, we would have lost in the long run.”

And lost big. As in generations to recover. None of us would have seen the recovery.

Second, however the impact is figured and however impossible it is to be precise, last summer’s GOP Convention was assuredly a local bonanza. You can’t welcome 50,000 visitors — especially in the slow season — and not have it matter in unprecedented ways. Impact in nine figures makes sense. Moreover, you can’t be the epicenter of an event second only to the Olympics in international exposure and not be elevated by it.

Maybe acquitting yourself well on one of the world’s premier stages didn’t convince Copa Airlines to come here or Edelweiss Air to add TIA flights to Zurich. And perhaps an incident-free national political convention with global gravitas didn’t close the deal on Bristol-Myers Squibb or the recruiting of the Bollywood Oscars. But you have to believe it mattered.

And while Mayor Bob can spin a sound bite with the best, you know it wasn’t all hyperbole when he recently noted that trade mission dynamics have improved.

“When we show up now, people know who we are,” he said.

Added Visit Tampa Bay president Santiago Corrada: “We’re booking conventions now that I would say are directly related to us hosting the RNC.”

Among them: the first visit of the American College of Genetics and Genomics, which will fill 4,600 room nights in 2016, and next year’s initial Siemens Medical Solutions Innovations for Healthcare IT gathering that will account for 4,300 room nights.

And then there is this.

Who knows how much longer national political conventions will continue? With ever-ratcheting debt in the trillions, we’re still tossing money at this throwback to a political era long past? For the record, the Federal Election Commission gave Tampa and Charlotte $18 million apiece to help underwrite their conventions. And the feds peeled off $50 million each for security.

These atavistic gatherings have a stated purpose of nominating an official presidential candidate and adopting a party platform. But not since Ronald Reagan made a serious run at Gerald Ford in 1976, has one of these primary-era conventions been anything other than an exorbitantly expensive coronation.

They are rubber-stamp pep rallies for more than 4,000 party officials and worker bees — aka delegates and alternates — who wear silly hats and sillier expressions. The platforms could be done on Skype. “Energizing” the party faithful — as if the prospect of one’s candidate winning the most powerful position in the world is insufficient motivation — is arguably not reason enough to perpetuate this quadrennial exercise in excess.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather summed it up succinctly enough last summer. “The parties have chosen to make (the conventions) into an infomercial,” he observed.

The day may yet dawn when the parties do, indeed, outgrow these obscenely expensive “infomercials.” And if so, it will matter not here. Tampa is likely one and done — and the one it did, it did well.

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