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Welcome to Tampa Bay! Yes, the prison fences are gone

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image The Tampa skyline, still fully intact after the RNC. While it might have been the butt of more than a few jokes, it turns out the Tampa Bay area is a pretty cool place after all. Mitch Traphagen Photo

If normally peaceful and successful St. Paul could be so rocked, just think of what could happen in normally insane Florida?

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

TAMPA - The normally quiet and relatively happy lives of Minnesotans were altered with tear gas canisters and mass arrests during the first week of September in 2008. Well over 10,000 protestors turned out for the Republican National Convention, held at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, and things got ugly. In addition to tear gas, law enforcement resorted to mass arrests, rounding up protestors and the journalists working to cover them alike. Few people — from the Republican Party, to news organizations, the city, and law enforcement itself — were happy with the results.

Four years later, many were expecting the worst as the RNC came to Tampa. If normally peaceful and successful St. Paul could be so rocked, just think of what could happen in normally insane Florida?  In the end, perhaps the insanity was part of the success.

Last week as candidates, party officials, thousands of delegates, guests, members of the media, and protestors left the city after the RNC drew to a close, nearly everyone had something complimentary to say about Tampa. Even the protestors were happy, perhaps even stunned, at how they were treated during the convention. As the Tampa Bay Times reported last week, upon hearing that some protestors were low on funds as well as on food, law enforcement officers visited their camp, dubbed Romneyville, with sandwiches and ice-cold bottles of water. One man told the newspaper that he had never experienced anything like that in 28 years of protesting political conventions.

In the end, there were no garbage dumpsters-turned-to-flaming-tanks (all the wheels were locked down), no obscene vandalism of city statues (they were boarded up), no defacing of buildings (most were fenced off with prison-quality fencing) and not a single tear gas canister had been fired. When protestors moved the show to Apollo Beach with three people chaining themselves to fixtures at TECO’s Big Bend power plant, officers from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office simply cut the chains and told the protestors that if they choose to stay and keep doing this stuff, someone was going to jail. They decided against jail. It was something Andy Griffith might have done in Mayberry, and it was in stark contrast to mass arrests at many previous conventions.

There are, no doubt, many explanations for how the Tampa Bay area so well handled the RNC and for the peace that was kept during the week. It may have been the threat of a hurricane, it may have been the heat and humidity that kept people from getting too wild, it may have been that downtown Tampa looked like a modern day equivalent of Berlin preparing to be stormed by the Soviets. The real reason for the peace, however, may have simply been that law enforcement in Florida is used to dealing with crazy people, from the button-downed arrogant (not that the Republicans were) to the outright lunatics (not that the protestors were). Fifty thousand people coming to the convention is what law enforcement calls “Spring Break” around here. It was nothing new, and nothing they couldn’t handle. They know that treating people with decency and respect beats arresting them whenever possible. It worked.

Everyone, law enforcement in particular, should be happy the week ended without the city going up in flames. Except for the whole hurricane thing, it was August in Florida after all, things could not have been better. Yet while praise is deserved, not everyone is happy.

Many restaurants and merchants across the Bay area reported their sales actually declined during the RNC. It seems the delegates had delegate-stuff to do rather than time for shopping and eating out. And, of course, there were complaints about the weather and other things that make Florida…well, Florida.

Jon Stewart brought his Daily Show to Tampa’s Straz Center during the RNC and, when one audience member asked him to say something nice about Florida; he responded by saying how insecure people are in this city. He also mentioned that Florida could use a hug. His first correspondent was set in front of a (fake) abandoned and foreclosed home for his “live report,” his second was shown in the clutches of a gigantic flying cockroach (which, according to the correspondent, locals referred to as a “juvenile Palmetto bug”).

Gail Collins from the New York Times, in an article on Sunday with fellow columnist David Brooks said, “Lovely people in Tampa, but all I could think was: this is what happens when you put the city of Des Moines in an asparagus steamer.”

A mermaid at Weeki Wachee. Mitch Traphagen PhotoReally? Des Moines is a nice and beautiful little city but it’s no Tampa (and vice versa — for which both are probably grateful). In fact, there are more people in the Greater Tampa Bay area than in all of Iowa. Besides, Iowa has its share of humidity in August — the only difference is the asparagus is a lot fresher since it comes from a farm field just down the road from downtown.

Here are just a few things delegates could have done in Tampa but not Des Moines (besides, of course, patronizing the overly publicized strip clubs):

They could have visited another country without leaving the city. According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraisers Office, Cubano Estado (the Cuban State) owns Jose Marti Park in Ybor City. Yes, the small park is owned by Cuba and is referred to as the only free Cuban land in the world. Except it really isn’t all that free because it is only open during certain hours and is otherwise locked up tight with heavy fencing and a big padlock.

Speaking of things Cuban, by just strolling a few blocks outside of the RNC security perimeter,  and for mere pocket change, they could have visited Cafe Perara and resolved the war of words between Tampa and Miami about which city owns the Cuban sandwich. Or better yet, they could have come to Ruskin to visit the Ybor Grill (either way, Tampa wins).

Had they been so inclined, our guests could have visited one of the best beaches in the nation at Ft. Desoto, a county park, and they could have met mermaids in Weeki Wachee. They could have visited the original Hooters restaurant, along with a handful of other restaurants that began here as Mom and Pop places only to go national.

They could have called up some of the best distorted lead guitar Christmas music from the Trans Siberian Orchestra on their iPods and hit the bars of Ybor where the group got their start.

They could have strolled along Bayshore Boulevard, one of the most beautiful roads that any city could lay claim to, in peace. The weird sewage smell from the bay was resolved decades ago, the egg-throwing teenagers had been busted by the Tampa Police months ago, and the new palm trees that fell over during Tropical Storm Debbie had been righted weeks ago.

They could have canoed alongside alligators, swam with dolphins and manatees and gone to Pinellas in search of the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay.

They could have taken in a concert at the 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheater because, well, really, who else has one?  They could have hung with some very cool showmen in Gibsonton or any number of professional wrestlers who call Tampa Bay home.

They could have visited the beautifully distinct Sacred Heart Church, tucked in next to a skyscraper or the former St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church (now renovated as an apartment complex) where both Dr. Martin Luther King and Bill Clinton have spoken from the pulpit. They could have visited any number of synagogues, mosques (hopefully not getting confused with the spires at the University of Tampa) and yes, even a Tibetan Buddhist temple or two.

It turns out that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hillsborough County is a much closer representation of American demographics than even the heartland city of Des Moines.  Who knew?

Des Moines is a great place, but I’m not sure either city deserved Collins’ (admittedly humorous) quip. So yes, visit that city, have some fresh asparagus and see what a happy and prosperous burg it is. For that matter, visit St. Paul — it, too, is a great city. But then come on back to Tampa Bay. If you give us a hug, we just might get a mermaid to serve up one of the world’s best Cuban sandwiches while alligators, dolphins and manatees frolic in the water to the strains of heavy metal disguised as Christmas music. Yeah, it could happen — nowhere else but here.

You can try to keep up with the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay via his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MysteryMonkeyOf TampaBay.

The Trans Siberian Orchestra is scheduled to play two shows at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Dec. 15.  Tickets are now on sale for fans registered on the website trans-siberian.com.

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