Today is a very important day for Central Florida," says Elmer Nagy, a Chevrolet regional manager, standing at a podium erected on the Outlook Dock of downtown's Lake Eola. It's a gorgeous Tuesday morning, with colorful banners waving in the cool autumn breeze, the lake reflecting a cloudless blue sky.
Behind him sit scores of smiling faces, beaming out at the audience of family members and media types. This is their special day -- they, among thousands, have been selected to carry the Olympic torch early next year on its path from Athens, Greece, to the site of the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Most are regular folks, though a few celebs, such as Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough and WESH-TV (Channel 2) anchor Wendy Chioji, will join the country's 7,200 torchbearers. As Nagy reads off names (Chevrolet and Coca-Cola, both Olympic sponsors, made some of the local selections), Mayor Glenda Hood smiles.
But it is not the press conference she wanted. Just last week, those leading the charge to bring the 2012 Summer Games to Central Florida were bracing themselves for a party. The U.S. Olympic Committee was set to cut back the list of contenders from eight to four, and Tampa 2012, though never a probable victor, was sure it would be among the finalists.
"We were definitely shocked," admits campaign spokeswoman Terri Parnell.
"We were anticipating a more celebratory day," adds Hood aide Susan Blexrud. "We had heard earlier that we had made the short list."
Tampa 2012 president Ed Turanchik, who in interviews oozes optimism, took the blow especially hard, with reports painting him in a state of disbelief.
Turanchik, a former Sierra Club conservation chairman, saw the Games as a way to nudge Florida into progress. It would mean a bullet train, new housing, accelerated road construction and a $200 million windfall, all while elevating Central Florida in the eyes of the global community. The Florida Legislature gave its approval with a $175 million contingency fund, and Florida 2012 (the name used by the Tampa-based campaign before the USOC ordered all would-be host cities to drop their regional labels in favor of a single-city identity) collected $11 million from many of the area's biggest players, including Disney, Busch Gardens/Sea World and the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
So what went wrong? Turanchik, who did not return Orlando Weekly's calls, told a Sentinel columnist the bid might have fared better if Orlando was the front city, rather than a mere partner with Tampa Bay. (A lack of public interest killed a tentative earlier effort to rally Orlando behind the cause, though Hood, ever the cheerleader, jumped aboard as a member of Florida 2012's board of directors.) As it was, Orlando had been counted upon to provide the much-needed hotel space and additional sports venues.
For Tampa to be embraced as a host city, all the elements of Turanchik's statewide vision had to be in place, and that may have been too iffy for the USOC. It's no secret that traffic congestion on I-4, an essential corridor under the Tampa plan, is abyssmal. And even with a constitutional amendment mandating a statewide rail network, lawmakers have dragged their feet implementing it.
Perhaps that's why an anonymous Olympic official told reporters last week that Tampa, along with Dallas and Houston, were viewed as "second-tier" cities. Houston, however, survived, as did Washington, D.C., San Francisco and the sentimental favorite, New York City. For the most part, last week's decision shut the door on any Florida-based Olympic bid for at least 20 or 30 years.
But it won't necessarily stop Turanchik in his tracks. He still has his vision of a seamless state, a place where an Orlandoan can hop a 45-minute train to a St. Petersburg beach. In fact, Parnell says, they may reform Tampa 2012 as an advocacy group to advance the things Turanchik cares so deeply about -- though without the Olympics as a lure, he'll have to find some other way to raise money for his mission.