TAMPA, Fla. — In a twist of irony, many visitors to this month’s Republican National Convention will travel between their hotels and the downtown event on a busy road named to honor President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat.
Kennedy Boulevard, a gateway to downtown from the west, was so named in 1964 partially because of a special connection between Tampa and the 35th president. Kennedy waved to massive crowds lining that road from an open-topped Lincoln Continental on Nov. 18, 1963. The next time he rode in that car, four days later in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, he would be fatally shot.
A statue of JFK stands at the University of Tampa, looking out over his eponymous thoroughfare.
The Tampa-JFK connection is just part of Florida’s rich presidential history. It includes Andrew Jackson’s role as Florida’s first territorial governor in Pensacola, Harry S. Truman’s “Little White House” in Key West — the winter quarters hosted six presidents — and the famous compound kept by the Kennedy family at Palm Beach. After Kennedy became president, a secret bunker was installed in an island off the coast in case of a nuclear attack.
There’s more in Tampa, too. A stone’s throw away from Kennedy’s statue is a grand structure topped with curiously ornate minarets that once was called the Tampa Bay Hotel, built by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant. Then-Col. Teddy Roosevelt and members of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry — better known as the Rough Riders — bivouacked there in 1898 before shipping out for Cuba and the Spanish-American War. Today, the building houses a museum and is a centerpiece of the stately University of Tampa campus downtown.
In more modern history, as the Tampa Bay area grew up and Florida became a critical swing state, visits by sitting presidents have become relatively common, and Tampa has become a required campaign-trail stop for any candidate who hopes to win over the many swing voters here.
For visitors to the Aug. 27-30 convention, there is plenty more to take in.
Tampa’s former Latin Quarter, Ybor City, adjacent to downtown, was for the first half of the last century the cigar manufacturing capital of the world, with more than 200 factories once lining the narrow streets. That heritage is celebrated here and is still alive in the cigar shops mixed in among the bars and restaurants in the bustling entertainment district. In the so-called “Cigar City,” aficionados can put fire to a fine stogie rolled minutes before right in the window of one those Ybor City shops.
Don’t fancy a cigar? How about a Cuban sandwich? That’s the other product virtually synonymous with Tampa and similarly interwoven into its history.
A staple of the early immigrant communities in Ybor City, the sandwich of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on pressed Cuban bread remains a Tampa favorite, with many restaurants and sandwich shops claiming to have the best or most authentic version. (Like pizza, Cuban sandwiches are hardly ever bad, regardless of who makes them.)
The area is expected to benefit directly from the convention to the tune of around $175 million, according to the host committee, and to attract potential later visitors from among the millions of people around the world watching it on TV. The event will attract three times more media members than the Super Bowl, which Tampa has hosted four times.
“It’s coverage that you can’t buy,” said Travis Claytor, spokesman for the area’s tourism bureau. “Every time they do a cutaway shot of the skyline of downtown Tampa or the Tampa Bay Times Forum, or show beauty shots of the beaches and the attractions, that’s promoting the destination like we’ve never been able to promote it before. This is an opportunity that has never come along before, and it’s priceless, to be honest with you.”
Tampa will be the focus for convention visitors, of course, with its big-city skyline, world-class aquarium, Busch Gardens theme park, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and the riverfront arena where all the convention floor action will take place. But the area is what it is — cool and cosmopolitan enough to attract Super Bowls, NCAA Final Four tournaments and now, a political convention — because of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and the rest of what collectively is known as Tampa Bay.
Visitors will do themselves a disservice if they don’t cross the bay and check out St. Petersburg’s stunning waterfront downtown area as well as the youthful vibe of Clearwater Beach. Some of the best white-sand beaches anywhere are close by, too. Two of them, Fort DeSoto Park and Caladesi Island, have topped the list from Stephen P. Leatherman, a Florida International University professor dubbed “Dr. Beach” for his annual rankings of the nation’s best coastlines.
Just north of Clearwater is Tarpon Springs, a small town established by Greek immigrant sponge divers in the early 20th century. Their descendants have worked hard to maintain its distinct Mediterranean flavor. The sponge docks now cater to tourists with a string of wonderful Greek restaurants, bakeries and gift shops.
“It was presented [to the RNC] as a complete area and all we have to offer,” said convention host committee spokeswoman Aileen Rodriguez. “The community really came together to put the bid together and get it in. Now we’re excited about showcasing the whole area to the guests who are coming into Tampa Bay.”
Delegates and other visitors will be using hotels on both sides of the bay, with a network of as many as 400 buses to shuttle them to and from the Tampa Bay Times Forum for the four nights of the convention.