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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Residents near Forum will be in eye of political storm

TAMPA - Mary McColgan's home soon will be hemmed in by concrete barriers and a maze of chain-link fences. Only the width of Nebraska Avenue will separate the rental house she shares with two sons from a grassy lot that will swarm with protesters and media covering the Republican National Convention. City officials have dubbed about seven acres of vacant lots, including this one, as viewing areas for demonstrations. The lots will be open 24 hours a day, and the city is providing a stage and sound system.
"They are calling it a small inconvenience for the greater good of Tampa," said McColgan, who manages rental homes on the block for property owner Eddie Diaz. "But they never, ever included us in their plans. Can I come to (Mayor Bob Buckhorn's) street and shut it down and put a couple thousand protesters at his house?" McColgan is one of eight people living in three rental houses and a four-apartment complex at what will be ground zero for protests in the 300 block of South Nebraska Avenue. While the city and the convention host committee are spreading around $50 million on security, McColgan and her neighbors are hunkering down for the unknown. Only a block away, a parking lot will serve as headquarters for law enforcement officers, emergency responders and media vehicles. A parade route, with daily marches, will end just shy of their front doors. Thousands of delegates will be bused daily to and from The Forum, just a jump away on Channelside Drive. McColgan said she learned how close to the action she would be two weeks ago when a reporter knocked on her door. By Friday, many of the more than 50,000 people expected to attend the convention will begin crunching into an "event zone" for a week of politics and protests. Parts of Harbour Island, Hyde Park, downtown, Ybor City and the University of Tampa are in the zone. It keeps McColgan up at nights. But her neighbor, disabled veteran Joseph "Scotty" Brock, isn't losing sleep. Two bags of groceries in each hand, he walked to his apartment Friday afternoon. He has lived there off and on for more than 25 years. "I'm not worried a damn bit," he said. "You ought to see it when hockey comes in. It's a jumping place." McColgan worries for Brock, her sons and two other elderly tenants. "They have nowhere else to go," she said. She is stocking up on food, including reserves for Brock. Her 26-year-old son is attending Erwin Technical Center and on Fridays volunteers at bingo night at a West Tampa American Legion hall. On bingo nights he comes home after 11 p.m. "I know he is 26 years old, but he's my son," McColgan said. She wants to know if he'll be safe walking to the house if protesters and police are clashing outside. City officials say they understand the problem and have come up with solutions. Six free parking spaces, for those tenants with cars, have been set aside for residents in the media parking lot. Diaz, the property owner, says residents already have a closer parking lot, but the city won't let them use it. Special arrangements have been made for daily garbage pickup by city workers cleaning up along the parade route. Trash bins have been removed for security reasons and residents have been told to put household trash in clear plastic bags at their back doors. "I'm fine with that," McColgan said. Residents were given a map showing a driving route for getting into and out of the media lot. Photo identification, such as a driver's license, will be needed for access. "There will be some delays. There is no doubt about it," said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "We can't control spontaneous protests." But police and first responders will be steps away if a resident needs help. "Emergency personnel will get to their house quicker than if it would be a normal day," Davis said. That doesn't ease McColgan's mind. "That just makes me more scared," she said. "Why do you need that many police there? How safe am I if thousands decide to get violent?" For the residents on South Nebraska, "it will be a hassle, but they live in the midst of it," Davis said. "We've bent over backwards." Diaz came to the Tampa City Council in June seeking protection for his property and tenants, who pay rent month to month. City attorneys met with him and discovered he had no insurance. Recently, city officials purchased a one-month $5,000 policy, with $200,000 in coverage for any damage to his property during the convention. Diaz said he offered to lease the houses and apartments to the city for $1 with the city paying to relocate the tenants temporarily. He said they might have saved about $2,000. "I can't believe how nonchalant the city has been about this," he said. Currently, one of three rental houses owned by Diaz is empty. A second has been rented to a media outlet, and McColgan lives in a third house. The four apartments are occupied. "The city didn't feel comfortable having his tenants evicted," said Assistant City Attorney Mauricio Rodriguez. "They have their belongings there, and it's their homes."

ksteele@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7652

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