Tampa is famous for many things: its beaches, the cigars of Ybor City and being the place where actor Channing Tatum was a stripper before he played one in the movies. This week, the city joins the ranks of Chicago and Philadelphia as the historic site of a Republican National Convention. But hosting a convention can have its drawbacks, especially when you’re a business owner depending on an economic boost that hasn’t arrived.
Business owners and workers say they were originally enthused about the massive gathering. According to the Tampa Bay Host Committee, there were at least 15,000 rooms booked for the week. The spending impact was estimated to be from $175 million to $200 million, without economic multipliers taken into account. Some 50,000 people were expected to arrive and start emptying their wallets. But on Monday, many businesses close to the convention were empty.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is still optimistic. “Well, obviously less is not good,” he told reporters. But he said many people in the city were thrilled to have the convention in town. Bill Nelligar, who owns a downtown restaurant, isn’t one of them. “We were excited because we wanted to be part of the history, but nothing’s going on,” he says. “It’s like kids waiting on Santa Claus, and Santa Claus never comes.”
The weather hasn’t helped. Kurdi’s Fresh Mediterranean Grill, situated a few blocks from the convention center, was empty as sheets of water came down on Monday afternoon. The establishment expanded its kitchen at a cost of $30,000 specifically for the convention, but it hasn’t seen an uptick in patronage, chef Fady George said. Taco Bus, a casual Mexican restaurant a few blocks away, borrowed employees from other locations to deal with the expected surge; so far, they haven’t been needed. “It hasn’t been anything we’re impressed with yet,” says Taco Bus employee Aras Guevara.
By Tuesday morning, the tropical-storm warnings had abated and the convention was back on schedule. Traffic picked up on the thoroughfares leading downtown. Business owners hope that will bring more patrons. But not all the challenges of hosting a convention are as fleeting as the weather.
The security has been intense. One taxi driver said he felt like he was “in an action movie.” Roads are barricaded throughout the downtown area. On-street parking isn’t available, and private parking lots have doubled their prices. Chain-link fences line the streets, and antiterrorism officers are posted on many corners. “Hovercraft is the only thing we haven’t seen police on,” Nelligar says. “The sense in Tampa is overkill.” From his window, he can watch officers go by on foot, on horse, on bicycle and in souped-up golf carts. His restaurant also stood empty on Monday, after taking cancelations from locals all weekend. The end of the convention can’t come soon enough, he says. “We will no longer be what one of our customers called Beirut,” his co-owner adds.