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U.S. | Government & Elections

Tampa prepares for best and worst with Republican convention
by Palm Beach Post
Sunday Aug 19th, 2012 3:34 PM
Local officials have set up security cameras throughout the city, set aside 1,700 beds at the local jail, created a video court system for first hearings and put extra shifts of public defenders on call to quickly process "troublemakers". On the other hand, local officials are setting up 575 portable toilets and two misting stations and providing bottled water, donated by the Salvation Army, for demonstrators, many of whom may be unprepared for Florida’s brutal summer heat. They’ll also have workers on hand to give emergency medical care.
By Dara Kam

TAMPA —

Palm trees are planted. Bridges are illuminated with colored lights. Streets are smoothed over. New cell towers have been erected.

Like a giddy debutante, the city of Tampa is spruced up in anticipation of what Mayor Bob Buckhorn calls his city’s “coming-out party” as the Republican National Convention begins next week.

But while the city is putting on its party clothes, it’s also preparing for a disaster.

Local officials have set up security cameras throughout the city, set aside 1,700 beds at the local jail, created a video court system for first hearings and put extra shifts of public defenders on call to quickly process troublemakers.

They’ve even called in the cavalry. Forty-eight police officers on horseback outfitted with riot gear will be on patrol at the event, which will begin Aug. 27 and end with presidential candidate Mitt Romney officially receiving the GOP nomination on Aug. 30.

Buckhorn, a Democrat, is ebullient when talking about his hopes for Tampa’s Republican convention.

“We’re going to get to tell our story to the entire world. This is our turn,” Buckhorn told a group of residents at a town hall meeting last week.

“It’s the beginning of a love affair,” he said, for the rest of the world with Tampa.

Yet he also rarely speaks of the convention without mentioning security and his concerns about “anarchists” provoking violence. He and other officials have scrutinized reports from past conventions, a recent NATO conference in Chicago and other high-profile events.

“We know there are going to be problems,” he said. “We know there are going to be confrontations with police.”

Officials expect thousands of protesters, many of whom already have the permits needed to march through the closed-off downtown and hold demonstrations at city parks.

But that’s not all.

Health officials are on alert for signs of potential bioterrorism, such as anthrax, botulism or plague. Then there are the everyday hazards of a Florida summer — lightning strikes and heat-induced injuries, not to mention this being the height of the hurricane season.

“It’s like walking on a high wire without a net and the whole world is watching,” Buckhorn said, describing what he sees as his city’s high-risk, high-reward situation.

At three town halls last week, city officials laid out their plans for dealing with what the mayor calls a “Super Bowl on steroids.” Residents and business owners repeatedly asked questions about road closures that will severely restrict traffic into and out of the city that sits on the Hillsborough River.

One of the five bridges into the city will be shut down for the entire event, and the streets immediately surrounding the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where the convention will be held, will be closed to vehicles.

To shield attendees from the heat, rain or even the sight of demonstrations, Republican National Convention organizers have constructed a quarter-mile-long, air-conditioned walkway from the forum to the Tampa Convention Center, where some events will be held and media will be housed. City officials expect as many as 15,000 journalists from around the world.

Adding to traffic problems, 400 buses will ferry delegates daily from hotels to drop-off points near the convention, and some parking lots will be shut down.

A charter school within the restricted zone will be shut down for a week – just a week after school opens on Monday. Hillsborough County’s government is moving its workers out of downtown and into satellite offices during the convention. But city government offices will remain open downtown.

Some businesses will remain open while others are asking their workers to telecommute to avoid the hassle.

“We honestly don’t know what to expect,” said David Burton, the owner of Pizza Fusion in the SkyPoint high-rise, where he also lives. SkyPoint has hired a 24-hour security guard and issued photo passes to its residents and, like many other high-rises downtown, will be on lockdown.

But Burton, located across the street from the riverfront Curtis Hixon Park, where a 30,000-square-foot party tent is being erected, is enthusiastic about the event, calling it an “opportunity to brand Tampa.”

More than 90,000 hotel rooms have been booked, about 15,000 more than expected, the mayor said.

James Bronte is the manager of Hatrick’s, a popular watering hole in the area that will be closed off to traffic.

But he’s not concerned about the closure’s impact on his business. Anheuser-Busch and Honeywell have rented out the neighborhood bar for the duration of the convention, Bronte said.

The event “will look good on our city’s résumé,” he said. “I think we’re all trying to make the best of it.”

Still, there is the constant underlying concern of demonstrators and how the city will look in how it handles them.

Officials have spent nearly all of the $50 million in federal grants slotted to keep conventioneers, demonstrators and ordinary citizens safe. They’ve bought armored cars, communications equipment and matching uniforms for the more than 4,000 law enforcement officers from around the country dispatched to the area for the event.

Police are shedding their dark blue, polyester uniforms and instead will sport the cooler khaki-colored, cotton outfits that Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said are “friendlier” and “more approachable” as they scan crowds for anyone “bent on disruption or destruction.”

Their mission is to “remove them as quickly as possible,” Castor said at a town hall meeting.

Local officials are setting up 575 portable toilets and two misting stations and providing bottled water, donated by the Salvation Army, for demonstrators, many of whom may be unprepared for Florida’s brutal summer heat. They’ll also have workers on hand to give emergency medical care.

But some officials are concerned that many of the protesters won’t have accommodations and may wind up spending the nights on the street or in a park.

“The reality is people are going to come here and they won’t have any place to stay,” said Tampa Councilwoman Lisa Montelione, who believes the city should have done more to make sure all visitors are safe, such as designating a city parking garage as an emergency temporary shelter.

But Buckhorn said the city is doing more than required by providing water and toilets.

“We’re not Chuck E. Cheese,” he said.

He said the city won’t tolerate protesters “sprawled along the sidewalk.”

But Montelione, a Democrat like the rest of the city council members, said that removing them could tax resources better used elsewhere and that images of police officers dragging demonstrators off the street “are not going to make a good photograph.”

Tampa, though, is ready for that situation, too.

The city plans to use social media to combat rumors and prevent the dissemination of what it calls “bad news.” Buckhorn spokeswoman Ali Glisson has recruited public information officers from public and private agencies around the state to help.

Buckhorn explained: A bloody protester in Chicago was captured on camera after an altercation with police; later, it was discovered that the demonstrator had smeared fake blood on himself. Local officials quickly revealed the deception by using social media, Buckhorn said.

“That’s the kind of push-back that we’re going to engage in to make sure that our folks, our citizens, know what’s going on in real time,” he said. “If we need to knock down bad stories, we’re going to knock down bad stories.”