Tampa, Fla., officials hoped the Republican National Convention would pour money into the local economy and shine a rose-colored spotlight on their region. But many local business owners say they are not experiencing the predicted uptick in business. Some blame Hurricane Isaac for raining on Tampa’s parade, other place the blame elsewhere. Kojo finds out what the RNC looks like from Tampa’s perspective.


  • Richard Danielson Staff writer, Tampa Bay Times
  • Robert Rohrlack, Jr. President and CEO, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce


  • 13:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 in Washington and live from the studios of WMNF in Tampa, Fla. welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.

  • 13:06:57

    MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, whose Cuban sandwich is the best and why Tampa lays claim to the title. It's Food Wednesday. But first, Tampa has been readying for its turn in the national and global spotlight for two years. And while the threat from hurricane Isaac may have dampened down the initial splash, the city is still ready to shine. But some local business owners aren't seeing the uptick in receipts they were hoping for.

  • 13:07:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to talk with us about how the preparations for and anticipation of the RNC are matching up with the reality so far is Richard Danielson. He is a Tampa Bay Times staff writer who covers city hall and local preparations for the RNC. Richard, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:07:40

    MR. RICHARD DANIELSONThank you very much for having me.

  • 13:07:42

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Bob Rohrlack. Bob Rohrlack, Jr. is the president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Bob Rohrlack, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:07:52

    MR. ROBERT ROHRLACK JR.Thank you. Welcome to town.

  • 13:07:53

    NNAMDIThank you very much for welcoming me. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you visited Tampa? If so, what stood out most for you? 800-433-8850. Richard, on the front page of yesterday's Tampa Bay Times you wrote, quoting here, "For decades Tampa has seen itself as being on the verge of moving up to the first tier of American cities. And for two years it has viewed the RNC as its turn on the global stage." Is it possible to over state just how important this event is to this city and this region?

  • 13:08:29

    DANIELSONWell, certainly locally the city has for a long time felt like it has a lot to offer visitors and businesses that might want to consider moving here. And it really hopes that the people who come here and the media that covers the place and the convention is going to present a very favorable picture of the city and win a lot of converts. So locally people feel like there's a lot riding and a lot at stake here.

  • 13:09:10

    NNAMDI800-433-8850's the number to call. Street closures and concerns about traffic led some businesses to shutter or, if possible, to have workers telecommute for the week. What is Tampa typically like on an average weekday? And how different is it from what we've been seeing?

  • 13:09:28

    DANIELSONIt is different. There is a secure perimeter around a fairly good part of the southern part of downtown near the water. It includes the Tampa Bay Times Forum where the convention is taking place, the Tampa Convention Center which is the media center for the event, two…

  • 13:09:52

    NNAMDIBoth places in which I've spent way too much time. Go ahead.

  • 13:09:54

    DANIELSONTwo big hotels down there and some streets. And inside that perimeter you've got to have a credential issued by the Secret Service to get in. Security is very tight. For several blocks beyond that and throughout downtown there is a force of maybe 3000 police officers, sheriff's deputies, state troopers from agencies all over the state that have been recruited, uniformed and trained to work this event. There is a lot of police presence on the street.

  • 13:10:28

    DANIELSONThere are certain parts of downtown, City Hall, the County Center, the County Courthouse, the Tampa Police Department and one of the very prettiest parks in the city, which is right on the Hillsborough River that are fenced off and not accessible to the public this week. And so it's quite a lot different than normal.

  • 13:10:51

    NNAMDISo what we're seeing this week is a limited view of Tampa. We've read some complaints, Bob Rohrlack, and seen with our own eyes that business is slow for some shops and restaurants in the area. What are you hearing from your members about how things are going so far?

  • 13:11:06

    ROHRLACK JR.Well, if you look at the way the perimeter has been designed for people going to the media facilities or to the Tampa Bay Times Forum itself for the convention, you get…

  • 13:11:17

    NNAMDIDid I mention I've been spending too much time there?

  • 13:11:18

    ROHRLACK JR.Yes, you have.

  • 13:11:20

    NNAMDIGo ahead, please.

  • 13:11:20

    ROHRLACK JR.But we're still glad you're here. It's a zigzag course to get through the security perimeter and the crowd-control system they put into place, which tends to drive the pedestrian traffic away from the places that are staying open. So that is having an impact. We're working closely with the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which focuses on the downtown core, to help get the word out, places are open, make sure you're going out to see things that are going on.

  • 13:11:46

    ROHRLACK JR.But it drives that traffic that way and then once you start through the first zone where they check credentials you're pretty much in a fenced area that directs the traffic. And you go through a couple security checkpoints to get in. So that's different, obviously, with what's going on. But we've been working for most of the year, again, with the Downtown Partnership to help manage the expectations. It's not gonna be the normal traffic flow. Things will be different. Help promote your business in a different way than what you normally do to try to drive the traffic there.

  • 13:12:17

    ROHRLACK JR.And help people understand, in that downtown core, how they need to take advantage of what's going on.

  • 13:12:22

    NNAMDIMeanwhile, in Ybor City, where we would like to spend a lot more time, things definitely seem to have been picking up after the first day of the weather when we got here, didn't seem to be that crowded. But looking around when we passed through there, I guess it was yesterday or the day before, things seem to be picking up there significantly.

  • 13:12:38

    ROHRLACK JR.Ybor City, the historic district, when Tampa was the cigar capitol of the world that's where it was located. A lot of those old cigar factories have been turned into establishments or have been rented out this week for different venues. So there is a lot of traffic going to Ybor. And they're having a good week in Ybor City.

  • 13:12:55

    NNAMDIIn case you're joining us, that's the voice of Robert or Bob Rohrlack, Jr. He is the president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. He joins us in studio along with Richard Danielson who is a Tampa Bay Times staff writer. He covers city hall and local preparations for this Republican National Convention. If you've never visited Tampa what's your overall impression of the city as you watch the RNC unfold? Call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to Kojo, K-O-J-O@wamu.org.

  • 13:13:26

    NNAMDIRichard, one thing that's just outside of anyone's control was the potential arrival of that unwelcome guest, Isaac, but while many of us out-of-towners may not be familiar with the drill, Tampa officials are. How smoothly did things go from a local standpoint in dealing with the delays and uncertainties surrounding the storm?

  • 13:13:46

    DANIELSONWell, preparing for hurricanes is something that governments in Florida do all the time, all year around, every year. And so they are practiced at it. In this case, a lot of the things that the city had to do to prepare for the convention, put security in place and make sure that garbage trucks were on standby and were staffed up to go out and clean up debris from protests, you could very easily switch those over in case they had to pick up storm debris as well. So the emergency operations center which brings in people from the weather service, the city, the county, the state, from FEMA, that was being activated anyway for the convention. It simply, for awhile, it had two tasks, one, convention prep, the other, getting ready for the hurricane as well.

  • 13:14:42

    DANIELSONAnd so in some ways, the city was even more prepared than usual for the possibility that Isaac might come here. And for awhile that looked like what was gonna happen.

  • 13:14:56

    NNAMDIAnd Isaac did not really strike here very heavily. Here is Franz, in Washington, D.C. Franz, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:15:05

    FRANZHi, Kojo. How are you doing?

  • 13:15:07

    NNAMDII'm well.

  • 13:15:09

    FRANZHey, I'm so glad you're talking about Tampa. As a growing city you cannot help but to think about the impact that USF has had in the area. I started school early in the '90s and finished late in the '90s and I've enjoyed my time. People has grown exponentially at that time. And I can't help to think, please talk about my alma mater, USF.

  • 13:15:38

    NNAMDIBob Rohrlack, Jr., what's the impact of University of South Florida in this area?

  • 13:15:42

    ROHRLACK JR.Well, I can go on about USF. It is one of our shining jewels here in the community. Franz is right. And I also have my oldest son is a junior there. So obviously a big deal. And my wife is an alum.

  • 13:15:52


  • 13:15:53

    ROHRLACK JR.So personally a big impact, but it's a young university. USF is under 50 years old, but they're one of the top 50 universities in the country for research grants that come in. They just opened up the only facility of its kind in downtown Tampa, the Center for Advanced Medical Learning Simulation, which is a comprehensive medical training facility right in downtown. They're even training doctors who will be on the front lines in Afghanistan how to deal with the injuries they might see in a similar environment.

  • 13:16:24

    ROHRLACK JR.They turn the air conditioning off so it gets hot like the Middle East. They have loud noises that come in. They do the lighting to make it look as realistic as possible. They're doing terrific training in that facility, truly cutting edge. So USF, not just up at the main campus, which is north of the downtown area, but they have campuses around Tampa Bay and the new facility in downtown. They are a major player. And their president, Judy Genshaft, has gotten very involved in the communities, a past chair of the Chamber and very involved in our economic development efforts.

  • 13:16:54

    ROHRLACK JR.They are an integral part of our community. So thank you for bringing that up. And go Bulls.

  • 13:16:58

    NNAMDIAnd here's Richard Danielson.

  • 13:17:00

    DANIELSONAnd I wanted to add that one of the things that Mayor Bob Buckhorn said yesterday when he greeted the delegates at the convention, was that he spent a little time talking about Tampa's history and where it came from. It was built largely by cigar rollers who were immigrants from Spain, from Cuba, from Italy and from Germany, as well as longshoremen, as well as people involved in shipping cattle. But its future, he says, is very much tied to a couple of things, the presence of McDill Air Force Base here, locally, is huge. That's where U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command are headquartered.

  • 13:17:42

    NNAMDIAnd then science, technology, medicine, public/private partnerships between USF and other groups, the Moffitt Cancer Center, locally, is in the mix here. That's where the mayor, the leadership of the city see the economic vigor of the region coming from in the future.

  • 13:18:03

    NNAMDIYou may wanna talk a little bit more about the political makeup of this city. The mayor and most of the council, it is my understanding, are Democrats, but here they are rolling out the red carpet for Republicans.

  • 13:18:14

    DANIELSONIn the city of Tampa itself, they're all Democrats.

  • 13:18:18

    ROHRLACK JR.Right.

  • 13:18:18

    DANIELSONThe mayor, seven council members and the city is more Democratic than the surrounding county, which is Hillsborough County. The county commission is more Republican body, but that's one of the things that makes Tampa, Hillsborough County, this end of the I-4 corridor, such a critical area in national elections.

  • 13:18:43

    NNAMDIIt's one of the swing areas in the State of Florida at this point. Speaking of the area, Bob, a lot of people think of Tampa as a city, but it's also part of a larger region. Has this event helped to strengthen unity between the area's different stakeholders?

  • 13:18:58

    ROHRLACK JR.You know, it's been interesting. Tampa Bay, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Sarasota, Manatee and you go north into Pasco County and beyond Lakeland to the east and Polk County, it's an eight-county region that works closely together to market the area as a good place to live, work and visit. And there's been a lot of work over the last decade or two to make that work, but something of the magnitude of the RNC coming to town has been a turbo-boost to that cooperative effort. And we're seeing that.

  • 13:19:27

    ROHRLACK JR.I think it's 24 or 26 of the state delegations are staying over on the beaches in the St. Pete-Clearwater-Pinellas County area. Everybody's traveling back and forth which is good for the whole region. And we're working together in cooperative efforts. We have a Tampa Media Center over at the Convention Center. There's Front Row Tampa Bay, which is online streaming for things that are going on in the area. There's been a lot of good cooperative effort going on. And the goal is have the people here who run businesses get interested in this area, wanna consider a location and then it's friendly competition to see exactly where they're looking in the Tampa Bay area.

  • 13:20:02

    NNAMDIWe're coming to you from Tampa, Fla. where the Republican National Convention is taking place. We're talking about the expectations of the Tampa business, and to some extent, political community, indeed the expectations of the entire region. And taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think the expectation on hype surrounding big events is ever fully realized for host cities? Why or why not? 800-433-8850.

  • 13:20:30

    NNAMDIRichard, security grants help to beef up the police force we've been seeing on patrol in great numbers. Do you have a sense of whether that has been the biggest factor when it comes to the relatively low number of protestors we've seen and the pretty peaceful nature of encounters between police and protestors so far?

  • 13:20:47

    DANIELSONI think it's part of it. And this has been one of the big stories of the week, if it continues for the next two days the way it started the last two days. And you consider the last Republican National Convention in St. Paul, things unfortunately did not go well four years ago.

  • 13:21:07

    NNAMDIWe were there.

  • 13:21:08

    DANIELSONAnd there were more than 800 people arrested during the week. So far in Tampa there have been three arrests. There haven't been very many protestors either. The police department said they expected perhaps as many as 15,000. There have been maybe a few thousand and scattered through a number of different events.

  • 13:21:36

    DANIELSONSo presence of the security -- the city received a federal grant for $50 million to help put in place the security that it needs. And about half of that went to create this coalition of 3500 to 4,000 officers, train them, equip them, feed them, put them up in hotel rooms if they needed. And other parts of that went to buy vehicles, bicycles. The police chief this morning said that one of the most effective squads that the city has is a 200-member bicycle squad 'cause it can just move around so quickly and guide marches along routes that -- you know, where they aren't going to get into trouble or go someplace where the police really don't want them to go.

  • 13:22:36

    NNAMDIBob, we've been hearing a lot about small business owners from the politicians at the Republican National Convention. What are some of the biggest challenges the members of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce face?

  • 13:22:48

    ROHRLACK JR.You know, Tampa is proud to be a small business town. We've got some great corporate partners but we are primarily an entrepreneurial small business town to make up most of our membership of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Leadership and a lot of the organizations. I think the challenge is wanting to know how are we going to see the economy get more on a solid positive track. And that was part of the strategy two years ago to go after something as big as the Republican National Convention, the huge economic impact.

  • 13:23:19

    ROHRLACK JR.This is usually a quiet time of the year. Kids are back in school. The business trade show season hasn't really kicked off so things tend to be a little more quiet. The estimates coming into this week were about $151 million economic impact from the convention. So we're going to be doing studies with some of our partner organizations afterwards seeing how it works out for the actual after effect. But small business wants to see what are the plans, what are the rules, what are the procedures, how do we operate and let's be consistent so we can move on.

  • 13:23:50

    ROHRLACK JR.Businesses are slowly moving in the right direction and we're all trying to go a little bit faster so we can keep things moving positively.

  • 13:23:56

    NNAMDIRichard Danielson, I also get the impression that in addition to that $151 million that the political leadership and the business leadership of Tampa are hoping that people see this as a place for investment in the future.

  • 13:24:07

    DANIELSONOh, it's absolutely one of the central goals of Bob and the mayor and the country commission and everyone who has a stake in the future of the region.

  • 13:24:22

    NNAMDICome down, take a look.

  • 13:24:23

    ROHRLACK JR.That's right.

  • 13:24:24

    DANIELSONAnd the convention is here largely because of a guy named Al Austin. He's 83 years old and is a developer and has been a delegate at every Republican National Convention since Miami Beach in 1972. And he got three minutes to speak to the delegates yesterday and one of the last things he said was, most important come back often. And he really consistently says that the area, he believes, is not as well known as it should be. And once people get to know it they're going to want to come here.

  • 13:25:05

    NNAMDIBob Rohrlack -- oh, I'm sorry. Please finish, Richard.

  • 13:25:07

    DANIELSONWell, I was actually going to go back very quickly, if I could...

  • 13:25:10

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 13:25:11

    DANIELSON...to security because I think a big factor in the whole security picture is the approach of the police going into this week. For months and months the police have said, we're not going to be too rigid. We're not going to bust people's heads.

  • 13:25:32

    NNAMDIYeah, you seem to have a negotiating police department.

  • 13:25:34

    DANIELSONWe're here to ensure that people have a chance to make their voices heard. And, you know, ahead of time, you know, I would listen and I would say to myself, well let's see how this goes. Let's see how it actually works out. But the story so far is that the police have tried to engage protestors, facilitate their movements around town.

  • 13:26:03

    NNAMDIThey say they're more interested in facilitating their rights than locking people up.

  • 13:26:06

    DANIELSONRight, right. And then they've said, you know, we'll get involved if people start breaking laws but up to that point they're -- you know, we want to see them speak their minds. And very interesting, on the very first day you had a group sort of wander off into an area that wasn't contemplated as a protest area. They sat down at a busy intersection for 15, 20 minutes. The police were there in force but the police didn't exactly move in. They sort of stood by, watched, let the protestors have their picture made.

  • 13:26:42

    DANIELSONAnd then at a certain point an assistant chief named John Bennett went out and he took a knee and talked to the protestors and he said, look you guys really need to move on here partly because if we have to rush somebody to the hospital, this is a place we gotta move an ambulance through. And they got up and left.

  • 13:27:00

    NNAMDIThat's what the reports that I saw indicated. And frankly I was surprised. And finally, what's the takeaway impression, Bob, that the City of Tampa and the surrounding region would like for visitors and observers of this convention to go away with?

  • 13:27:13

    ROHRLACK JR.I think first and foremost -- the beginning of the week all the concern and talk was about the impending storm that wound up swinging away -- see that one, we had the advantage of days of preparation and we did prepare. Two, the weather channel tends to over blow things.

  • 13:27:31

    NNAMDIThat's what they have to do to get viewers.

  • 13:27:31

    ROHRLACK JR.That's right. And three, this is a dynamic market in a dynamic region. We're proud of the way things have gone in this city and the way they're continuing to go. There's a cooperative spirit here. It's a dynamic market that is very diverse from the makeup of the people to the makeup of the industries. And it is a place, as Rich said, that we want them to come back. We want them to come see this area, whether they're coming as a visitor or considering being here permanently. But this is a great market and we consider that along with being the anchor of the I-4 corridor that decides state elections, we're a leader nationally in what's going on in this country.

  • 13:28:10

    NNAMDIRobert Rohrlack, Jr. is the president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:28:16

    ROHRLACK JR.Thank you. Glad to be here.

  • 13:28:17

    NNAMDIRichard Danielson is a Tampa Bay Times staff writer who covers City Hall and local preparations for this Republican National Convention. Richard Danielson, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:28:26

    DANIELSONYou're welcome. I've enjoyed it.

  • 13:28:27

    NNAMDIWhen we come back, Food Wednesday. Who's Cuban sandwich is the best, do you think? Do you know Tampa lays claim to that title? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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