The question is, how many?
By B.C. Manion
When Marc and Becky Young, Texas delegates to the Republican National Convention (RNC), arrived at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, they made a beeline to Publix for batteries and flashlights.
Forecasters had warned that Hurricane Isaac was a potential threat to the Tampa Bay region, and they weren’t taking chances.
The following morning, Amy Doucet and Lisa Garza, delegates from Texas, walked along SR 54 in Wesley Chapel to the Waffle House to grab a bite. Next, they stocked up on groceries. They intended to catch a movie at Cobb Grove 16 the next day.
Other Republicans staying at Saddlebrook said they were planning to check out The Shops at Wiregrass, eat meals at local restaurants and stick around for a few days after the convention to see the area’s sights.
The 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee estimated direct spending tied to the RNC would range from $175 million to $200 million. That’s not counting the “multiplier” effect, which can equal 2.5 times the actual dollars spent, the committee reported.
Those numbers, however, are the topic of debate.
An analysis by Jones Lang Lasalle, a financial and professional services firm, estimated direct spending at far less, putting the total at $153.6 million.
Philip Porter, an economics professor from the University of South Florida (USF), scoffs at both projections: “They want to paint the best picture they possibly can. They count anything they can possibly put their hands on.”
Studies conducted of past conventions in other cities have shown that optimistic spending projections do not bear out, Porter said.
“The real question is what you expect to sell,” the economics professor said.
Much of the money conventioneers spend will benefit companies based elsewhere, Porter said.
For instance, the convention’s bookings primarily go to the international companies that own the hotels, Porter said. Limousine services that are brought in from other cities to ferry people around bring in revenue for the out-of-town companies that own the car services. Even the dinner rolls served in local restaurants are made from grain and flour that come from different states, he said.
Saddlebrook Resort is locally owned and was sold out for the week of the convention thanks to delegates from Louisiana and Texas. It was the only RNC convention hotel in Pasco County but wasn’t the only area hotel picking up trade.
“The short-term impact is probably on our hospitality industry,” said John Hagen, president/CEO of the Pasco Economic Development Council.
Local merchants hoped to catch some RNC business, too.
The Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel put out a welcome mat for convention visitors and for Labor Day weekend by hosting a bipartisan, All-American Festival, including concerts, a puppet show, a sidewalk sale and a fresh market.
Poor weather conditions early in the week probably put a damper on visitors to the mall because many of its amenities are outdoors, some mall merchants said.
Greg Lenners, general manager at The Shops at Wiregrass, said it was too early on Aug. 30 to tell what kind of impact the RNC would have on mall traffic.
Most of the mall’s special events weren’t planned to begin until after the convention’s final evening on Aug. 30, Lenners explained.
Merchants offered a variety of deals to try to entice hotel guests to visit the mall.
Guests from 30 area hotels picked up a special red, white and blue wristband to get in on the deals, including discounts on merchandise at several shops. One special was a 17.76 percent discount on shoes or apparel at Fitniche.
Discounts were also offered on food and drink, including 10 percent off a beverages at Barnie’s Coffee, a free appetizer with two adult meals at Red Robin, a free 14-ounce draft at Primebar and 20 percent off Pagelli’s Italiano.
Blondie’s Cookies got into the spirit by decorating a cookie with a RNC theme, and the staff at hq Salon Aveda took a bipartisan approach by creating a window display showing the hair styles of all of the first ladies, from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama.
Cobb Grove 16 saw little difference in its usual sales, except for a bump in business on Aug. 27 when RNC events were cancelled because of concerns about Hurricane Isaac, said Jeremy Welman, chief operating officer for the Cobb Theatres/CinéBistro chain, based in Birmingham.
“We not talking a big swing; maybe 20 percent higher,” Welman said.
Business was a bit more brisk at CinéBistro Hyde Park Village, which is closer to the convention, Welman said.
Boosters say that immediate spending is just one benefit from hosting a presidential political convention. They think the intense media exposure can help a convention city create a positive impression that can have long-lasting benefits.
Hagen said the entire region worked together to put on a marketing blitz for Tampa Bay, adding that the concerted efforts before the convention helped cement stronger ties in the region and offered learning opportunities for those involved.
In broadcast interviews on radio and television, members of the host committee and local politicians repeatedly cited the intense media exposure as a tremendous opportunity to showcase the area’s strengths and bolster the region’s long-term prospects.
Porter is skeptical.
“It’s exposure,” Porter said, but there’s no guarantee it will be good. When the city hosted the Super Bowl in the past, media outlets focused on reporting Tampa’s strip clubs, he said.
He also doubts that those attending the convention are the kind of people who influence where businesses decide to locate.
“These are delegates and newspaper reporters and politicians,” Porter said, not the captains of industry.
Porter criticized city leaders for not presenting a more accurate picture of the true impacts.
The bottom line, Porter said, is this: “What did you have when you had the RNC and what did you have when you didn’t have it? It’s same old, same old. … Our city is saying what the RNC tells them and not looking at their own data.
“They have the data,” Porter continued. “They don’t look at it, and, as a result, they do us a disservice.”
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn — a Democrat who has championed the positives the convention would bring to the city — could not be reached for comment.