Beyond politics, what are long-lasting benefits of hosting a political convention?

Just south of Gandy Boulevard in South Tampa, there’s a new apartment complex dedicated to getting homeless people off the street, so social workers and others can help solve the problems that made them homeless in the first place.

In Tampa, police have an armored vehicle called a Bear Cat that’s useful in shooting situations, but even more useful in rescuing people stranded in high water during floods. Citizens are also noticing police patrolling downtown on bikes.

And at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, there’s a new playground for special needs children.

These improvements have one thing in common: They were perks for the city for hosting the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Hosting such an event can put a lot of strain on a community.

Cleveland is experiencing that this week (July 18-21) as it hosts the Republican National Convention, which some worry could draw an unusual number of angry protesters.

But there are also benefits, some of them lasting.

In Tampa, convention spending provided new police equipment and vehicles, large contributions to local charities, upgrades to cell phone and internet systems, street and landscaping improvements and millions of dollars in upgrades to Amalie Arena and the Tampa Convention Center.

“Some of the leave-behinds will be with us for a long time,” says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Investments that keep on giving

The new police equipment, part of $50 million budgeted for convention security, is the most obvious example.

As recently as May, the Bear Cat provided cover while officers waited out a mentally disturbed man holed up in his South Tampa home with a gun; he eventually surrendered peacefully.

The police also got four military surplus Humvees that were crucial during last July’s unprecedented rain storms, says Assistant Police Chief Brian Dugan.

In addition, there were three mobile surveillance towers mounted on elevating platforms for monitoring crowd events; 10 Ford Expeditions each for the police department and the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office modified with running boards to transport large numbers of officers quickly into crowded situations; $6 million worth of radios and chargers; golf cart-like utility vehicles; and loads of uniforms, gas masks and riot gear.

But Dugan says the four leave-behinds with the most impact were: 
  • Bicycles. They got 200 street bikes designed for police use at more than $1,000 each -- the Tampa Police Department kept 90, and the rest went to other agencies that provided manpower during the convention. The department, which previously had a handful of bike-mounted officers, created a standing bike squad. “The officers and citizens like it,” says former Police Chief Jane Castor. “It puts them in closer touch with people on the street, on their porches. They can respond to situations in large crowds with ease.”
  • A computer program called StreetSmart that streams vast amounts information to monitors in patrol cars -- criminal bulletins, wants and warrants, lists of sex offenders, career offenders and probationers. “It’s used constantly,” Dugan says. “Just for one example, if an officer is responding to a report of a sex crime, he can call up a map of sex offenders in the neighborhood.”
  • A $1.2 million downlink system that streams video live from police helicopter cameras.
  • A $2 million system of surveillance cameras downtown that Castor and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn say have been used to solve crimes, including one instance where the cameras led police to a man who had just attempted a rape in a downtown parking deck.
Many other big changes are less visible.

For Ken Jones, CEO of the local host committee for the convention, logistical challenges were enormous, not the least making sure huge crowds in the Amalie Arena and Tampa Convention Center press headquarters stayed cool and could make phone calls and rely on power and internet connections.

A convention, he said, pulls up to 20 megawatts of power, twice that of a rock concert.

“Remember when the power went out at the Super Bowl in New Orleans? That’s what you don’t want to happen.”

Upgrades still in place include two new multi-megawatt transformers at the Arena; $1 million for sound baffling; a multi-million-dollar “directed antenna” for wireless service; and $2 million in HVAC upgrades.

AT&T, Jones says, spent nearly $50 million. The improvements included three phone towers that cover 1,500 square miles; launching 4G LTE service in the area; adding new cell frequencies, and creating 200 WiFi hotspots.

“I’ll bet you don’t get a lot of dropped AT&T calls now,” Jones says.

TECO planned for an increase in power usage comparable to several thousand homes, says spokeswoman Sylvia Vega.

The company installed new transformers, switchgear and underground cables, conducted maintenance patrols and infrared surveys of its entire network, and added both temporary and permanent equipment and power sources for several downtown customers.

Surplus went to nonprofits, foundations

The non-profit Tampa Bay Host Committee took in about $56 million to support the convention, and after last-minute worries that it wouldn’t raise enough to cover its bills, ended up with a $2.8 million surplus.

That plus $2 million in matching funds resulted in a windfall for local charities, more than 80 of which got donations.

The biggest was $500,000 to the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital Foundation, a favorite cause of St. Petersburg businessman Bill Edwards, a major GOP donor who gave heavily to the host committee.

The hospital used the money in its project to set up a Brain Protection Sciences Institute, Adams says. But another RNC-related gift of $300,000 from two associations of credit unions went to overhaul an old playground space into a therapeutic playground for children with special needs and those recovering from traumatic injuries.

The second-largest donation, $300,000, went to Housing First Steps Forward, an initiative backed by Tampa Bay Lightning executives including owner Jeff Vinik whose foundation gave $1.5 million to the host committee.

Current Chairman David Reed says that money helped complete a 48-unit complex south of Gandy -- he didn’t want to identify it for the sake of residents’ privacy; its other projects include Cypress Landing on North 15th Street in Tampa. 

In helping homeless people, “A home should be the first piece of the puzzle,” he says. Once an individual is off the street and stabilized, then other programs, including housing vouchers for rent, addiction or mental health programs, have a chance to work.

Other six-figure donations went to the University of South Florida Foundation, Tampa General Hospital Foundation and the University of Tampa.
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Read more articles by William March.