So is it Tampa?

Celebrity treatment, a fake pirate - and showers of confetti and balloons - lighten up a visit of the GOP site selection committee. Now comes the wait.

Published August 22, 2006

TAMPA - They walked a red carpet. They were showered with balloons and confetti. They dined on shrimp cocktail and fruit dipped in a chocolate fountain.

Members of the 2008 Republican National Convention site selection committee were treated like celebrities Monday as they toured Tampa venues and landmarks. Whether the coddling made any difference is an open question.

The nine-member selection team will wrap up its visit today with a tour of Pinellas County sites before heading to Cleveland. That's the final visit of four cities vying to host the GOP gathering in September 2008. The other two are Minneapolis and New York.

The GOP will select a convention site early next year.

In a closed-door meeting Monday, local planners cut the convention's price tag from $124-million to $64-million by removing some large chunks from the budget.

Members of the selection committee asked questions about meeting space; the number of hotel rooms near the St. Pete Times Forum and the Tampa Convention Center, which would be the main convention facilities; and how delegates would get from hotels to events.

How did they like the answers? They weren't saying. But their hosts were enthusiastic about the day.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who gave a welcome speech at breakfast Monday, said he shared a table with selection team member Connie Nicholas, the national committeewoman for North Dakota.

"She asked how long it took me to get from where I live to where I work," he said. "I told her about five minutes because I live in South Tampa."

Committee members wanted to know the average daily temperature the first week in September.

Meteorologist Shawn Bennett gave the answer: a high of 90 degrees and a low of 75, according to Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who attended Monday's business meeting.

Bennett also told the committee the likelihood of a hurricane hitting the bay area is about 2 percent.

"He reported a 98 percent chance of nothing happening here," said Karen Brand, vice president of communications for the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Local convention planners also reviewed a nearly $64-million event budget, according to Kelly Kavanaugh, CFO for the Visitors Bureau.

Plans call for raising $40-million in corporate and individual donations and requesting $15-million from the state Legislature. Another $9-million would come from local governments, including $1-million in cash from the city of Tampa and $3.2-million of in-kind services from Tampa and other governments.

Original bid documents put the price of the convention at $124-million. But the Republican National Committee asked planners to remove $38-million in federal security dollars that would be earmarked for the convention if it's tagged as a national security event, Kavanaugh said. Organizers also trimmed $6-million from a contingency fund and $16.5-million slated to come from Hillsborough County's Tourist Development Council and local governments.

Hagan said committee members were receptive and enthusiastic during the business meeting. "It went incredibly well," he said.

He credited staff from the Visitors Bureau for covering all the bases and adding "a lighthearted touch."

After a break in the meeting, he said, a character actor portraying pirate Jose Gaspar entertained.

"The enthusiasm of the city is evident. That's something we'll take away from this," Republican National Committee spokesman Aaron McLear said after leaving the Tampa Convention Center where confetti and red, white and blue balloons dropped on the team as they left the building.

Monday's agenda included stops at the Tampa Theatre, the Florida Aquarium, the American Victory Ship and a tour and lunch at the St. Pete Times Forum. Then the group walked a red carpet to enter the Convention Center.

More than 50 staff members, wearing business suits, chef hats and maintenance uniforms, applauded, cheered and waved American flags while Kool and the Gang's Celebration blasted from speakers.

"As of this morning, we are no longer the Tampa Convention Center. We are the RNC media center," convention director John Moors told the group. He pointed to the windows overlooking Tampa Bay and noted that dolphins and manatees had been spotted earlier in the day.

"We want the press to feel like they're in a resort," he said.

After a look at meeting areas and the loading dock, the group went to the Convention Center kitchen for dessert, which included a chocolate fountain and banana nut strudel with ice cream and raspberry coulis.

Sharon Day, a Republican National Committee member from Florida, said all three cities the site selection team has visited have done great presentations, but only Tampa had balloons and a chocolate fountain.

"They have made us feel very special," she said.

In addition to Day and Nicholas, the group to select a host city includes members of the RNC from California, Washington, Alabama, Wisconsin, Vermont and New Jersey. Jo Ann Davidson of Ohio, co-chair of the RNC, heads the team.