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Choice of Tampa has its critics

Complaints range from a shortage of perks and nearby hotel rooms to the choice of a location to please Lyons.

By TWILA DECKER and WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 1999


TAMPA -- The selection two years ago of this city for the 1999 meeting of the National Baptist Convention USA was supposed to be a pay-back to the group's then-popular president, Henry J. Lyons.

But with the St. Petersburg minister behind bars and the group set to elect his replacement, some convention members are questioning the logic of having the weeklong meeting, which begins today, in the Tampa Bay area.

The area is, by all accounts, a tight fit for a gathering of NBC's size.

The convention, the largest ever held in Tampa, is expected to draw as many as 50,000 people to downtown Tampa during the next five days and pump $46-million into the local economy. Attendance should peak on Thursday, when the group elects a president to replace Lyons, who is serving a 51/2-year sentence for fraud, racketeering and grand theft.

Tampa city officials, more accustomed to conventions with about 6,000 people, have warned downtown employees about traffic congestion, and hotels in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are filled.

"We are trying to squeeze as many in as we can," said Tom Smith, a spokesman for the Hyatt Regency in downtown Tampa.

There's also grumbling among some conventioneers that NBC organizers played favorites when doling out the prime downtown rooms.

A block of rooms -- about 6,000 per night in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties -- was set aside for the group.

It was the responsibility of the NBC to divvy up the rooms and collect credit card numbers or deposits. Only about 1,400 of the rooms are downtown.

"We put up $30,000 early on, as soon as they were able to receive it," said Franklyn Richardson of Mount Vernon, N.Y., a front-runner in the race for president. "I thought it was first come, first served. I ended up with about 10 rooms downtown. The rest are at the airport. But we won't allow this to distract us from our goal, which is to get elected."

Convention spokeswoman Marsha T. DuPont, NBC's director of housing, didn't return phone calls to discuss complaints about favoritism. She said earlier she is doing her best to find rooms for everyone.

She said that the nearly 6,000 rooms available in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Clearwater had been been booked by early last week and that the NBC was searching for additional rooms. Some delegates will have a drive of up to 45 minutes to the Tampa Convention Center and the Ice Palace, where the meetings are being held.

The Rev. S.C. Cureton, who became interim president of the National Baptist Convention after Lyons resigned in March, said he blames the hotels, which he believes overbooked.

He said several people told him they were bumped because of expired credit cards without being given a chance to submit current information.

But representatives of two downtown hotels, the Wyndham Harbor Island Hotel and the Hyatt Regency, say they did not take rooms from the convention.

Smith, of the Hyatt, said that when he could not get approval from a credit card, he called DuPont. She supplied him with another name and another credit card number to keep the room.

Cureton also complained that Tampa hasn't given the organization enough incentives considering the financial boost the gathering will give the area.

"Financially, I know that they have not done as other cities have done for us," Cureton said.

Previous host cities have offered in-kind services such as free auditorium space, VIP cars and sponsorships, Cureton said.

But Vicki Isley, spokesperson for the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention & Visitors Association, said the group was given incentives to come here.

Her association has spent $184,000, renting meeting space in the Convention Center and the Ice Palace, hosting a reception and paying for some of the transportation.

"I am not understanding the complaint," she said, adding that her organization is thrilled to have the religious group meet in Tampa.

"Hosting the National Baptist Convention is certainly something the association is proud to do," she said. "It is a good thing for the community."

Contacted later, Cureton said: "I am happy with what they have done . . . but I was hopeful that the city would give a little more than they have done. I would have hoped that we would have gotten more, whether it was in-kind or money for other expenses. I don't precisely know how many cars we got, but we had to rent cars for some of our staff."

Other members of the convention say complaints about the host city and its accommodations are nothing new.

They say they often have trouble finding a comfortable fit because of the organization's size.

E.V. Hill, pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, said during a convention in Birmingham, Ala., the mayor asked citizens to donate bedrooms to NBC members.

"Christians from everywhere came forward to donate rooms," said Hill, also a front-runner in the presidential race. "I would personally appreciate that kind of help again."

Acen L. Phillips, who is also running for president, said during the days when African-Americans were banned from many hotels, convention members routinely bunked at local NBC members' homes.

He said the tradition still exists on a smaller scale today.

"They would get new sheets and towels and fix up their rooms for people," he said of the host families. "Even this time in Tampa, houses will be jammed full with us."

He said people also will share hotel rooms. "We'll have three and four people to a room," he said.

Phillips said he doesn't regret the choice of Tampa, although the circumstances have changed.

"It was kind of like saying thank you, Mr. President," he said of the Tampa meeting. "If (Lyons) had succeeded in his first term, it would have been a high celebration."

But Richardson, a longtime Lyons critic who ran against him in 1994, said the selection of Tampa illustrates the problem with the convention.

It is too concerned about its VIPs and not concerned enough about its members.

He said it should have picked one of the many cities in this country that have adequate rooms near their convention centers, rather than one that would give its president the home-court advantage for his re-election campaign.

"Deciding where we ought to meet should be based on the convenience of the least and the last, not on the VIPs," he said. He added that it's ironic that Lyons is missing the gathering, which was organized to help promote him. "God has a strange sense of humor."

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