TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — During this summer's national political conventions, workers in downtown Tampa and Charlotte will face throngs of pedestrians snaking through intersections, evening commutes snarled by street closures and the threat of unruly protesters.
For waiters who expect big tips from delegates, the transportation headaches should be worth it. Some accountants and bankers, though, are more likely to fire up their laptops and work from home. But the biggest problem for locals as they plan their workday routines is uncertainty, since neither city has hosted an event this big.
"Honestly, I don't know what to expect," shrugged Rosalie Arnone. She works at the Old Tampa Book Company, which is about a mile from the Tampa Bay Times Forum where the convention will be held. "We plan on being open, but if anything gets out of control, we're going to close up."
Sure, the Super Bowl has come to Tampa four times, and Charlotte has hosted an NCAA Final Four and a National Rifle Association annual meeting. But the cities have never accommodated such large numbers of people, combined with heavy security and the threat of protests.
So when residents of both areas talk about how they will handle the traffic, the demonstrations and the potential disruption in daily routines, many express ambivalence, hope or even confusion.
Betty Ryan, a 36-year-old Charlotte attorney, says some of her friends who work downtown are taking the week off.
"We're glad the Democrats are coming here. It's a good thing for Charlotte. We'll be in the national spotlight. But if you work here, good luck. It's going to be very difficult getting around. That's why so many people will be staying home that week."
The Republican National Convention will be held Aug. 27-30, while the Democratic National Convention will be held Sept. 4-6. Officials in both cities say stores, restaurants and bars will be open, but acknowledge that many office workers could decide to telecommute and some businesses may opt to shut down for a few days.
In Tampa, for example, 108 of 130 retail merchants in the city's downtown area plan to stay open, according to an informal survey by The Tampa Downtown Partnership. Many are hoping for an increase in business in late August, a time when it's typically slow.
"Will there be challenges? Sure," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "We're going to manage the routes and protect the routes and get through it."
Similarly, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx acknowledges it will be harder for people who work downtown to get around, but he promised the city will be open for business. City officials say, for example, that it should be easy for trucks to make deliveries to the restaurants that will mostly be catering to convention-goers.
"Folks that want to stay open will be able to stay open," Foxx said.
Tampa is home to about 350,000 people, although most don't live in the urban core. The few who do are either trying to rent out their condos or just leave town.
The city's downtown is only about 571 acres and is bordered by interstates and rivers, and punctuated with restaurants, cafes and offices; the city normally buzzes during the workday but becomes quiet by evening. The convention will be held at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, about eight blocks south of the heart of downtown.
In Charlotte, a city of 760,000, the convention is being held in the central business district known as Uptown. The bustling two-mile stretch that cuts through the heart of this central district is filled with restaurants, hotels and high-rise condominiums. Ringed by expressways, it's used to handling crowds of NBA and NFL fans that spill into the streets before and after games.
During the convention, Charlotte is planning to close portions of 29 streets to traffic for security. The city will post signs and use "physical barriers" and uniformed law enforcement officers to enforce security.
In Tampa, more than two dozen roads and streets, including a main expressway, will be closed to traffic. Others will temporarily be one-way lanes. Taxi drop-offs, roads leading to one of the city's main hospitals, public buses — all will be rerouted. Tampa General Hospital, the city's largest trauma center, is telling patients that driving to the facility could take 30-45 minutes longer than usual because of periodic road closures.
Commuters in both cities are already grumbling.
"It's going to be a zoo," said Bob Daniels, 45, an accountant who works in downtown Charlotte. "The last thing I want to do is have to go through checkpoints, and roadblocks. It's too much of a hassle. Too much stress. I don't want to be around it."
Instead, Daniels said he will work from his home in Rock Hill, S.C., about 20 miles away. His accounting company will be open, but most employees will telecommute.
"It's no big deal. A lot of people work from home. All you need is your laptop. I do it all the time," Daniels said.
Bank of America, which employs about 15,000 people at its headquarters in Charlotte, is encouraging employees to work from a mix of downtown offices, alternative bank facilities and their homes, BofA spokesman Scott Silvestri said.
Wells Fargo, which employs about 20,000 people in the Charlotte area, is also considering letting people work from home and other alternatives.
In Tampa, city and county office buildings will be closed and employees will work remotely or in other locations. Some companies located in Tampa's skyscrapers are allowing people to work from home.
Convention activities generally begin around 4 p.m. each day, so afternoon rush hour is bound to be challenging.
In Tampa, Humana health insurance, the city of Tampa and RNC officials decided to provide 20 pedal-buses — they look like pedal driven, canopied golf carts on steroids — to help conventioneers get around the city to visit restaurants and stores. Each pedal bus can accommodate eight riders plus one "driver" that steers the rig. After Tampa, those pedal-buses will be headed to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Despite all the predictions of gridlock, Tampa's downtown merchants are still hoping to have some semblance of a normal work week. Ed Arias, the owners of Reina Shoe Repair in downtown Tampa, said he's received scant information from the city on what to expect. He expects to come to work as usual on the first day of the convention and hope for the best, adding that most of his regular customers will likely be out of town.
"But if it's too crazy, too risky, I'll shut the doors."
Mitch Weiss reported from Charlotte, N.C.
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