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Republican convention disappointing for Tampa merchants

Tuesday, August 28, 2012 | 7:45 p.m. CDT; updated 8:22 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 28, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — Streets in the heart of downtown are eerily quiet, key intersections blocked off. Even the best restaurants are easy to get into without a reservation or much of a wait.

It's supposed to be an honor to be picked as the host city of a presidential nominating convention.

But so far, a combination of nasty weather, tight security that blocks off streets and a delay in Republican National Convention activities has left Tampa's streets deserted, its restaurants nearly empty. Some merchants remain hopeful they'll make up for it in the next several days, while others worry they've lost so much money from investing in extra staff, food and merchandise that no amount of business will put them in the black this week.

Jeff Morzella had hoped the convention would double business, but on Monday, only 75 customers ate in his restaurant compared to 400 patrons on a typical day.

"This has been a ghost town," Morzella said Tuesday morning, standing outside his restaurant named FRESH. Streets surrounding the block were barricaded. The biggest source of downtown traffic for the past few days has been police officers on bicycles, but they have been eating at meal stations catered by outsiders, not local restaurants, Morzella said.

FRESH generally garners up to $20,000 in weekly revenue but as of Tuesday had only taken in $800.

"More money out of pocket. No money coming in," said Morzella, whose restaurant serves soups, salads and paninis. It's on a row of restaurants just a few blocks from the Tampa Bay Times Forum where delegates are convening. "I would need to triple business between now and the end of the convention to make up for what I've lost already."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said by the end of the week, the economic gains will outweigh losses, though he acknowledged that downtown was "dead" Monday. The day was soggy with intermittent downpours from Isaac and downtown lacked many delegates since the Republicans delayed their activities for a day because of the storm.

Still, the Democratic mayor said the convention was expected to infuse $150 million to $175 million into the local economy with delegates spending about a third of that and the host committee spending another third.

"I think when we're all said and done with this, this will have a huge economic impact on the city," Buckhorn said.

And not all businesses are a bust. All area hotels are booked at a time when Florida's summer heat usually leaves them begging for guests. Limo drivers are in demand.

At Encore Select, which has taken over a storefront blocks from the Forum to sell "NoBama!" T-shirts and Mitt Romney buttons, revenue has only been half of what company president Richard Moore anticipated. Almost all patrons have been locals, not out-of-town delegates. Moore had hoped delegates would go shopping Monday because there was little convention activity. If they did, it wasn't at his store.

"I don't know what they did yesterday. They didn't have anything else going on," Moore said Tuesday. "No one else came in. We would have been better off just having our local business."

And even in the area where many of the Republican delegates are staying, business was hardly booming.

Business at Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill in St. Petersburg was hurt by barricades erected around nearby Tropicana Field where some convention events were held. The lunchtime crowd of up to 200 patrons dwindled to about 75 on Monday, and owner Mark Ferguson estimated he had lost more than $10,000 during the past six days.

"The convention didn't help us at all," Ferguson said.

At the Jimmy John's sandwich shop in downtown Tampa, business was down from the typical $3,000 a day to $2,500 a day, said owner Andy Baldwin. He had ordered triple the amount of food he normally does for his three sandwich shops in the area.

"I think the hurricane did a good job of keeping everybody away," Baldwin said. "Hopefully, business will pick up."

But some businesses — such as The Hub, which bills itself as America's best dive bar — already were picking up. Daytime bartender Jeannie Robinson said several delegates and protesters stopped in Monday, doubling the usual weekday business.

"I have my Mitt Romney T-shirt," Robinson said. "Even though I'm a Democrat."


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