Posted August 30th 2012 at 5:07 pm by
in U.S. Elections 2012

Tampa Bay: A Terrible Place for a Convention

Greater Tampa is an American cornucopia of hotel rooms, parking spaces, and airports – and not much else. Sure, Tampa’s got a nice waterfront walkway and a reasonable strip of bars nearby, but either the City or its election-time visitors apparently decided to obscure these assets rather than boast them.

In Perugia, a small city in central Italy that hosts a number of large gatherings each year, one finds oneself wondering if some local woke up one morning in 1370 and said, “Let’s design a city that will be ideal for hosting conferences!” To its advantage, Perugia only hosts delightful events – a chocolate festival, a week-long free Jazz concert, and an international journalism festival. Electing an American President is necessary, and energizing for some people, but certainly not delightful. If you look at it that way, maybe Tampa is a perfect fit. Tampa, Florida is anything but delightful.

Perhaps the main problem is an overwhelming fear of protestors and/or terrorists. This week, Tampa has more armed officers parading the streets than post-conflict Guatemala did when I visited there in 2003. Helicopters are constantly buzzing overhead. Between ten and fifteen guards stand at each checkpoint outside of the convention complex, and far more are waiting inside. The convention complex itself, which takes at least 20 minutes walking to traverse and includes some of the city’s most prime waterfront access, is blocking roads and irritating locals trying to do their regular business.

One bar owner in Ybor City, a club strip reminiscent of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, shut down for the week and posted this sign on his front door:

Tampa Bay: A Terrible Place for a Convention

He probably made a good choice. The bartender at the establishment a few doors down told me that business was at an unprecedented low because even their regular customers didn’t want to bother with the traffic blocks or the cops. Never mind attracting the city’s convention-going visitors.

Tampa Bay: A Terrible Place for a Convention

The view from inside the convention complex. It includes nice hotels and a walk along the water.

There are two kinds of visitors here: those who have access to the convention complex and those who do not. Delegates, journalists, and big-time party people have special passes they wear around their necks to get in. The passes offer varying degrees of access, and the best pass in the house puts you right on the floor of the convention arena. But for an obscure blogger like me, any level pass is not an option. But I had luck: a friendly guy working in the chair next to mine at the downtown Hyatt handed me one of his extras, so I got to see inside.

A nice strip of boardwalk along Ashley Drive is available to the public, but the public wouldn’t know it. I only found it by wandering, and encountered only one stray journalist during the 30 minutes I spent there, contemplating Tampa.

Tampa Bay: A Terrible Place for a Convention
Note the green security fence on the left. Pass holders walk toward the convention hall on the street to the left of this fence.

Maybe walking along the boardwalk isn’t the thing in Tampa. It’s hot and humid enough to squelch even me, a walking evangelist. Or maybe I just gave up after seeing several incomplete crosswalks like this one:

Tampa Bay: A Terrible Place for a Convention

Meanwhile, parking in Tampa is a joy. The lot I’ve been using is $5 a day and a few blocks from downtown. When I exceeded my time limit in the lot one evening, I had to pay $35 to a lot-monitor who was parked a few feet away, waiting for my call. As he removed the boot from my wheel, he told me a funny story about a Senator who faced the same fine the night before but didn’t take his punishment with so much cheer. While friendly parking management is tremendous, the city might want to consider a bit of lot innovation if it’s going to make parking one of its top assets.

Florida’s beautiful seashore, of course, is delightful. About a year ago I took one of the best long-weekends in my life in nearby St. Pete’s Beach. The Post Card Inn has bright rooms, a pool, a beach-front bar and the beach to go with it. My friend called the Post Card Inn to make reservations for convention week as soon as he found out he’d be going. That was months ago, and there were no rooms available. It turns out PCI has been booked for a year – ever since they found out they’d be hosting the Alaska delegation. I hope the folks from Alaska are having a good time. It’s fair enough that the Alaskans get the best beach hotel in town.

Post by Alexa Mills, who is covering the Republican and Democratic National Conventions from Tampa and Charlotte, respectively.

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