Tampa businesses give RNC mixed reviews

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 30, 2012 

— The Republican National Convention brought tens of thousands of visitors to Tampa and attracted worldwide attention, but with one day left many retailers are giving it mixed reviews, complaining that the rush of promised business failed to materialize.

Tropical Smoothie Café sits in the shadow of three of the city’s tallest buildings. The lunch line usually extends out the door. But on Tuesday, in the middle of lunch hour, there were less than a handful of people ordering sandwiches.

Several workers in the kitchen were concentrating on delivery orders, which manager Robert Szasz offered at a discount. It’s the only thing that’s kept his business afloat, he said, because people are afraid to come into the street.

“I went from 30,000 people walking by my store every day and having plenty of customers to basically having zero – except for law enforcement, curiosity seekers and a few actual conventioneers,” said Szasz, adding that there’s still time for business to pick up.

Business from the convention has been a boon for caterers and restaurants that were able to pick up private parties. But many local spots didn’t see the bump they hoped.

Mayor Buckhorn acknowledged that some local businesses would struggle because of the bad weather and increased security throughout downtown. He said some customers would stay away because of the fences and checkpoints near the convention venues. But he said businesses in other areas have experienced a “bonanza,” such as those in the historic district around Ybor City.

“There are, and they stop me all the time, folks out there who are having the best week they will ever have because of this convention,” Buckhorn told reporters Wednesday.

City officials estimated the Republican convention would generate between $150 million and $175 million. It could take months, if not years, before the real impacts can be measured.

The estimates include:

• $50 million raised by the host committee that will be spent in the Bay area.

• $50 million in spending by delegates.

• About $50 million in security expenditures.

The greatest economic benefit of the convention isn’t in the dollars visitors will spend, Buckhorn said, but the exposure that Tampa receives.

It was no doubt the best week that Hattricks tavern will experience this year, said co-owner David Mangione. The sports bar and restaurant, located just outside one of the main security gates, has been filled everyday for a private convention party.

“It’s been busy,” Mangione said.

Protesters, media, and convention vendors needing extra flyers, passes, and placards have been filling orders at Unlimited Printing & Copying. General manager Sallie Williams estimated business was up at least 10 percent.

Caterers have been booked solid for weeks preparing and now feeding thousands of delegates, volunteers and media teams.

That’s the problem, says Rose Arnone, who works at a small downtown book shop, Old Tampa Book Company. The 50,000 delegates and visitors have all their needs met on the convention site.

“If they want to venture out of their little safe area, we have stuff out here,” she said.

The store rearranged its display window, replacing books on film with books about Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. The stacks of books that usually cluttered the aisles were cleared.

“We didn’t want people tripping,” Arnone said. “We thought a lot more people would be down here, but it’s really been a ghost town… I made one sale today. It’s pretty rough.”

Many owners complained regular customers stayed away out of fear of protesters and traffic. Local government closed some offices.

Jim Montgomery, 62, a graphic designer for a utility company, was the only person sitting down to eat lunch at the City Street Deli, a 14-seat family restaurant a half-mile form the convention site. His company practically emptied their nine-story building because of concerns about the convention. He said about 800 employees were moved off-site.

The deli’s owners, Randy and Sara Arnold, had stocked up on extra ham and turkey expecting a rush of business. They even talked in advance about having to be patient if the line stretched outside the door.

Now they can’t wait till the convention is over. Calling it the worst week they’ve had since opening the restaurant in 1995, Randy Arnold said they’ve lost about 75 percent of their business on Monday and Tuesday.

“I thought it was going to be huge,” Sara Arnold said. “It’s so dead.”

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