Hosts in Tampa area stand ready to serve

UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO BY MIKE DUBOSE ••• Marriott and Embassy Suites hotels stand across the street from the Tampa Convention Center in Florida, site of the 2012 United Methodist General Conference.

The Rev. Jim Harnish, pastor of Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, Fla., likes to say that “people who live in Tampa are always happy to welcome people to Tampa.”

And he’s counting on that.

As chairperson of the host committee for General Conference this year, Dr. Harnish and his team are in the process of recruiting volunteers to fill more than 2,000 four-hour time shifts during the General Conference. Volunteers will serve as greeters at the airport, hotels and convention center, and will staff the information booth, hospitality lounge and registration area, as well as serving on the prayer ministry team.

“Our mission is to offer a gift of warm welcome, which provides a setting for the unity and health of the church,” Dr. Harnish said.

As of mid-February, more than half of those time slots had been filled by over 600 volunteers. Many will travel from other cities in Florida, and have scheduled vacation days and booked hotel rooms for the trip. The committee expects to easily fill the remaining slots with local volunteers as the date of the event nears.

“We have volunteers coming from all over the state, including Tallahassee, Miami and Jacksonville,” said Marilyn Swanson, staff liaison for General Conference in the Florida Conference office. “Some districts and churches are bringing their vans or buses.”

We’re finding a really great response,” Dr. Harnish said. “I think people here are getting excited about being hosts.” Dr. Harnish’s church is located six blocks from the Convention Center, and will host a few events during the General Conference.

The host committee has created a recruitment video that’s now showing in churches in the South Central district of the Florida Conference. An online tool allows volunteers to register and select time shifts via the Internet.

For host team members and the massive, coordinated army of volunteers, Dr. Harnish offers a role model: “the guy in Luke 22,” who prepared the Upper Room for Jesus and the disciples.

“We’re the ones preparing the room, in the hope that the spirit will do something new and fresh in the life of the church,” he said. “We’re praying and hoping that God will use General Conference in a way that will re-energize our church for its ministry.

Gathering at the water


PHOTO COURTESY OF TAMPA BAY & COMPANY • • • Bayshore Boulevard, linking South Tampa and downtown, skirts Tampa Bay and boasts the world’s longest continuous sidewalk—about four and a half miles.

The General Conference will convene in the Tampa Convention Center, a 600,000 square foot facility located right on the waterfront in the heart of downtown Tampa. The Convention Center boasts a 200,000-square foot exhibit hall, along with 36 breakout rooms, 10 of them with water views.

Five hotels near the Convention Center—the Hyatt, Embassy Suites, Marriott Waterside, Sheraton and Westin—will house most of the delegates.

A stone’s throw away from the Convention Center is the Tampa Bay Times Forum, which will host the Republican National Convention in August. (When asked to compare the General Conference to the Republican gathering, Dr. Harnish likes to joke that “General Conference is much more political, because the decisions will have all been made for the Republicans before they get here.”)

Ms. Swanson, a Tampa resident, says that the area near the Convention Center is a busy port, and conference delegates likely will see cruise ships docked nearby. Within walking distance is a new children’s museum and art museum. Delegates may also spot the campus of the University of Tampa, across the river, with its distinctive minarets.

Colorful history

Tampa was initially settled as an Indian fishing village; native tribes called the village by the bay “Tanpa,” which means “sticks of fire,” and the spelling was later changed to Tampa.

Ponce de Leon traveled just south of Tampa in search of the fountain of youth in 1521; Hernando de Soto sailed into Tampa Bay in 1539 in search of gold. In 1821, Spain ceded the Florida territory to the United States, and three years later, Fort Brooke attracted traders to what is now downtown Tampa.

In 1884, the railroad was extended to Tampa, and a steamship line connected Tampa to Key West and Havana, Cuba.

Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Cuban exile and cigar manufacturer, moved his business from Key West to Tampa in 1885, becoming the first of many cigar businesses to set up shop in Tampa. Spanish, Italian, German and Cuban workers settled in the area to work in the cigar industry and created a vivacious Latin community known as Ybor (EE-bore) City.

Ybor City was the “Cigar Capital of the World” until the embargo on Cuban tobacco in the mid-20th century. Today, Ybor City is one of three National Historic Landmark districts in Tampa, with historic buildings, galleries, shops and nightclubs.

The Tampa Bay area lays claim to the birth of the airline industry. Tony Jannus piloted the first regularly scheduled commercial flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 1914. During World War I and II, Tampa became a shipbuilding center, and in World War II, MacDill Air Force Base opened.

Today, Tampa is a multi-cultural city, named one of the five most diverse, integrated urban areas in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau. About 10 percent of Tampa’s population is Hispanic, with people representing every Latin American country.

With a population of more than 335,000, Tampa is the state’s third largest city and the nation’s 54th largest city. The Tampa area’s diverse economic base includes tourism, agriculture, construction, finance, health care, government, technology and the port of Tampa.

Change in venue

Tampa wasn’t the initial plan for General Conference 2012. Originally, the denomination made plans to hold the gathering in Richmond, Va., but in 2006, announced a change to move the conference to Tampa.

In making the change, the United Methodist Commission on the General Conference cited a church policy regarding meeting in cities that are home to professional sports teams with Native American names. (At the time of the initial selection, commission members were unaware that Richmond was home to the Richmond Braves, a minor league baseball team affiliated with the Atlanta Braves. The team was later relocated to the Atlanta area in 2008.)

The next General Conference, in 2016, will take place in Portland, Ore., and will meet at the Oregon Convention Center May 10-20, 2016.

The site of the General Conference has traditionally rotated among the church’s five geographic U.S. jurisdictions. Portland is in the Western Jurisdiction, which last hosted the assembly in 1996, in Denver. Portland is part of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, which has more than 32,000 members and 213 local churches.


Mary Jacobs, Staff Writer –

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