RNC was a business bust for some owners in downtown Tampa

09/04/12 Janelle Irwin
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Some small businesses in downtown Tampa didn’t rake in the money city officials said they would during the Republican convention last week. Instead, some restaurant owners over-ordered to accommodate the crowds they were promised. Crystal Davis owns The Luxury Box directly across the street from the Tampa Bay Times Forum and said she lost a lot of money.

“I spent tens of thousands of dollars on this venue and now I’m going to spend the next week or so just to return it all because they had me fenced out.”

Davis' sports bar was surrounded by fences with green mesh coverings so people couldn’t really see it. It was one of only a handful of restaurants inside the area secured by Secret Service that stayed open during the convention. According to Davis, most of the others in that area were rented by large groups to use privately. She said she was trying to negotiate a similar deal, but it fell through at the last minute.

“In May they said that they couldn’t sign the deal, but they couldn’t say why. So, this is just my opinion, I think that they found out where the fence was going to be. This is just, of course, my opinion – I think that they found out where the fences were going to be and was like, I don’t want to be blocked out so they decided not to sign on with us.”

Davis is also upset that city officials and convention planners didn’t do a good enough job of keeping her in the loop about how security plans would affect her business. She said she had thirty employees who needed to be credentialed to go to work and only four permits for parking.

“So, I had to spend most of my time and gas to go pick up employees to bring them to work. They didn’t even give me my car placards until Sunday afternoon so I couldn’t even open Sunday. So, I lost one whole day of business.”

It was so bad Davis is worried the restaurant might not bounce back. She said she is seriously considering filing a lawsuit.

“Yeah, absolutely I’m looking into it. And like I said, I’m not trying to get rich here, I just want to be made whole.”

Most of Davis’ employees are tipped workers. That means she’s able to pay them less than minimum wage. But with the lack luster turn out of patrons, it left them flat broke.

“A lot of my employees have – especially in the summer time – they have second jobs. They gave up those second jobs to work here because this was supposed to be such a big money maker, so many people were supposed to come through The Luxury Box and they were here to show people that were coming to Tampa a good time and it just didn’t happen.”

Some employees who worked outside the secure area, but still inside the city’s established Event Zone didn’t fare much better. Stephanie Lorenzo is a cashier at Taco Bus on North Franklin Street. She agreed that the hyped up projections of commerce in downtown hurt businesses and their employees who thought they were just being prepared.

“We actually ordered some, stocked extra stuff, but we also brought in extra people to help out. By the end of the week, we didn’t really need as many as we had brought on.”

And all those extra employees had to battle with finding a place to park too.

“They had to pay, like $10 parking everyday which is like, double the amount that they normally paid. So they were actually losing money, you know?”

But across the street at a coffee shop called Indigo, employees were happy with their Republican convention experience.

“Yeah, we made better than usual; especially for summer time in Florida.”

That was Katie Senkovich, the shop’s manager. Most of their sales came from police officers who were offered a half off discount all week. As for parking, Senkovich said they had two parking spaces in a private lot and when that wasn’t enough, there was plenty of parking on the street. She added, city officials made it easy for the business to prepare.

“We definitely were informed. They were all really great. If we had questions we could call someone and ask and they would let us know definitely.”

Janette White, the chef at Jerk Hut on Twiggs and Tampa Street, said city officials told her to expect higher than normal volume. The expectation didn’t pan out.

“Everybody come in and say, ‘we’re going to have a wonderful time, we’re going to make some money because people are going to come from all over.’ So, business weren’t good for us, no business.”

White said those who did come in for a taste of the islands weren’t delegates or journalists like she expected.

“Some of them is the police, most of the people we get them walking down the street.”

Delegates did shop at the Americana Emporium. It’s a temporary store set up to sell convention stuff like t-shirts, bumper stickers and coffee mugs – most of which have anti-Obama catch phrases written on them. Sean Lowe has been working there and was blasé about last week’s sales.

“It was kind of what we expected, maybe a little less just because it was so hard to get around downtown.”

Just outside of the event zone on Palm Avenue is Café Hey. There, business was great. Cheong Choi, the café’s owner, said he made sure it would be by organizing events every night, something he thinks other business owners didn’t do.

“They just bought more things and expected it to happen automatically. But we also have the – sometimes it’s not a boon for us because people get sketched out about this neighborhood, but in this situation we weren’t downtown which was essentially turned into a cordoned off security area which made it incredibly uncomfortable for anybody to go to.”

Most of Café Hey’s clientele last week consisted of protesters. And a group of street medics who were in town to keep a watchful eye over demonstrators met there every morning. Afterward they’d head down the road to Romneyville where many of the protesters were camping during the convention.

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