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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

RNC 2012 in Tampa might be Al Austin's biggest project yet



Al Austin shuffled one recent Saturday morning onto the green-gray clay of the tennis courts at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club. The 83-year-old wore a floppy white sun hat and boxy black sunglasses, and braces on his elbow, knee and wrist. He hadn't slept much. He coughed an angry, chesty cough and grimaced.

"I feel terrible," he said to one of his playing partners, who's also his doctor. Austin pulled a crinkled tissue from a pocket of his shorts in between some practice shots.

"I'm ready," he announced.

He stood at the back of the court in some momentary shade.

The first serve of the set spun toward the man most responsible for bringing the Republican National Convention to Tampa.

He was one of the area's most important builders and developers starting in the 1950s. He was one of the area's most important Republican fundraisers starting not long after that. Known for his early development of West Shore, Austin says he has raised "probably a couple hundred million" dollars for local, state and national politicians who believe what he believes. He's been a delegate or an alternate at every convention since 1972. He's the chairman of the local host committee for this one. But this convention is different, say those who know him best, because it is the culmination of everything he's done professionally and politically.

How did this convention end up here? One way to answer that question is to look at the decade the city spent on three separate bids. The other is to consider more broadly the growth that put it in position to host an event of this magnitude. Austin is a key in both.

He has a stout torso and a square face. These features fit his stubborn insistence. Called "a real deal Republican" by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, "tenacious" by current Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and "one of the most persistent human beings I've ever met" by host committee CEO Ken Jones, Austin, who has a pacemaker and takes a blood thinner, is working seven days a week helping raise the last of the $55 million the committee needs.

After his family, says his wife, Beverly, this is "more important to him than anything else."

At stake for Austin is his legacy.

At stake for Tampa is its identity. Story here.

[Last modified: Sunday, August 5, 2012 6:34pm]


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