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

Al Austin helped grow West Shore and the GOP. The convention may be his biggest project yet.
Published August 3 2012
Updated August 4 2012

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.

‘I'm a visionary," he said this spring in his corner office on the seventh floor of a plain, rectangular, tan-brick building he built. "I believe in doing stuff that other people haven't done."

His personal history mirrors the evolution of the area as a whole: In the '40s, he hauled hundred-pound feed bags on his father's poultry farm in St. Petersburg; in the '50s, he erected spec houses on waterfront lots on Tampa's Davis Islands; in the '60s, he started putting up what he called suburban office buildings, away from downtown, focused on what he saw as the future.

The interstate was new. The Howard Frankland bridge was new. The modern Tampa International Airport was on the way. And on West Shore Boulevard, which at the time was a two-lane road in the middle of mostly cattle, sand, seagulls and snakes, he bought some 17 acres for about $27,000 per.

The headline in the old Tampa Times called it THE ROAD TO SOMEWHERE.

By November 1967, the new governor, a showman named Claude Kirk, flew from Tallahassee to Tampa to help Austin dedicate the latest of his new office buildings that made up what he named the Austin Center.

Austin knew Kirk. They had met a few years earlier at a Young Presidents' Organization gathering in the Bahamas. Kirk, a Republican when Florida had hardly any, was gearing up to run for a U.S. Senate seat, and Austin was impressed. He told him he would do something he had never done: He would help him raise some money. Kirk lost that election, in '64, but two years later he ran for governor and won, becoming the state's first Republican in that office since Reconstruction.

Success is hard work, but it's also being in the right place at the right time, Austin has said, and he should know because he was. Richard Nixon was elected president in '68. The country turned. Its politics moved right. Its people moved south.

More than 40 percent of America's population growth in the '70s was in just three states, Florida being one of them, and Tampa and St. Petersburg made up the nation's third-fastest growing metropolitan area. In 1978, U.S. News & World Report named Tampa one of the "star cities" of the surging Southeast. In 1982, Megatrends, an influential book, called it one of 10 new cities of opportunity.

Said one financial analyst in 1986 in a story in The American Banker: "I regard Tampa as the embodiment of the growth and pro-business spirit that people associate with much of the new South."

Billboard bravado became public policy.

Florida's always been a slogan state — "I'm just sellin' orange juice," Kirk once said — and Tampa ramped up its efforts as a slogan city.

Where The Good Life Gets Better Every Day. Where Wonders Never Cease. The Florida You've Been Searching For.

America's Next Great City.

One city-produced promotional video featured a jingle:

Once this market was just a dream

Now we're a big-league team

Building a head of steam

The man one business magazine called "Mr. West Shore" raced around the city in his red Ferrari Testarossa, pushing the speed to 100, to 130.

He considered new businesspeople who came to town "fresh blood," and "I'd invite them to events," he said, "to fundraisers, and if they made a contribution I became their friend."

It was Morning in America, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and Al Austin of Tampa was on the visitors list.

West Shore has one percent of the total land area of Hillsborough County, and 1 percent of its population, but 13 percent of the employment, 39 percent of the commercial office space and 45 percent of the hotel rooms. "Really the premier corporate address in the region," in the words of Ron Rotella, the director of the area's trade group. West Shore became what it was supposed to become.

Tampa did not.

America's Next Great City didn't grow up. It grew out.

"We're a community that developed without a plan," Pam Iorio said in 1998 in an oral history interview. She was the county's supervisor of elections and later was elected mayor. In the absence of a plan, she said, "a developer comes in and says, 'I'll do this.' "

The growth of the '70s and '80s created its own problems. With substandard public transportation, the city's sprawl makes urban planners wince. Where is its center? What is its Main Street?

Miami is Miami. Orlando is Disney. Tampa is … what?

"Beats the hell out of me," former Mayor Sandy Freedman said this spring.

Tampa is more interesting than people think. Its cigar factories brought in a spectrum of skin shades from Spain, Italy, Cuba and Germany decades before anywhere else in Florida. It was a city of dock workers before this was a state of dealmakers. Mob bosses and seersuckered businessmen passed each other in corridors of steak houses. Tampa, Buckhorn said this spring, is a "paella." But paella doesn't play on billboards. And the truth about Tampa is that it isn't the city it wants to be.

This existential crisis has dictated the actions of Tampa mayors for the last generation and then some.

They have sought and gotten big events like Super Bowls, in '84, in '91, in '01, in '09, hoping each time the publicity jolt — television exposure, mentions in national newspapers, visitors' word-of-mouth — would bring more external validation.

They also have tried to revitalize downtown, which withered as the edges grew, by building first-rate hotels, the performing arts center, the arena and the convention center.

Then, in 2002, the city got a letter from the Republican National Committee asking if it wanted to bid to host the convention in 2004.

"We were like, 'Can we even do this?' " said Steve Hayes, the executive vice president of Tampa Bay & Company, the convention and tourism board.

They needed somebody who knew the right people. They needed somebody who could raise the necessary money.

"It was that connection to Al Austin," Hayes said, "that made us say, 'Wait a minute, we can do this.' "

They gave him a call.

Tampa quickly was named a finalist. The other two: New Orleans and New York. "Tampa has arrived," Austin said then.

The next step was a visit from a site selection committee. It was scheduled for August 2002. "We will bend over backward to do everything to please them," he said.

Workers trimmed palms and planted flowers. Beaded pirates from Gasparilla's Ye Mystic Krewe greeted them at the airport. "T-A-M-P-A," they chanted, holding signs that read like pleas: WE REALLY WANT THIS. The Tampa group drove the visitors from the airport through West Shore, past then-new International Plaza, where they pointed out pricey stores like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. At the Tampa Marriott Waterside, a piano player played Isn't She Lovely, and in the rooms the pillowcases had been embroidered with the host committee logo. They ate lobster potato salad and dark chocolate elephants filled with white chocolate mousse. They didn't even get wet exiting the arena during a muggy summer downpour, shielded by a 30-foot, expandable tunnel usually used after hockey games to help referees or opposing teams avoid ornery fans. White-gloved workers clapped for them at the swank Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach. Everywhere they went, a lighted moving billboard followed, assuring them WE'RE GLAD YOU'RE HERE.

Austin doesn't like being told no. They told him no.

The committee picked New York. The decision was understandable. New York had obvious sentimental and symbolic value in the fresh aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"We have nothing to be discouraged about," Dick Greco, the mayor at the time, told the Times. "Just to be on the same playing field with New York is wonderful."

Austin made a guarantee for '08: "We will be the front-runner for the convention."

The site selection visit in '06 was largely the same, only more polished, they thought — more balloons and confetti, more shrimp cocktail, more chocolate fountains — and Austin and the Tampa group felt buoyant. The competition this time was Cleveland and Minnesota's Twin Cities. Austin announced at a news conference he had raised $7 million already.

"That was just in the last 15 minutes," he said.

From whom?

"My friends."

He got a group together to go to Washington to meet with Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman the week before the decision. He wanted to gauge the mood and make one last pitch. The group included Tampa business heavyweights John Sykes, Mel Sembler, Dick Beard and Don DeFosset, along with Paul Catoe, who at the time was Tampa's tourism boss.

In Mehlman's office, Austin began to talk, according to the recollections of Catoe and others, and Mehlman stopped him.

"Ken held up his hand," Catoe said this spring, "and he said, 'You don't need to do that, Al. We know Tampa. We love Tampa.' He said, 'Tampa's in a great position. You guys shouldn't worry about anything. Go back home. Everything will be okay.' "

The group left Mehlman's office and exchanged high fives on the sidewalk. They flew home to Tampa. The '08 convention went to Minnesota.

"We were told it was ours," Beard said.

"We were shocked," Sykes said.

Austin calls Mehlman "the guy who double-crossed us." Beverly Austin said of her husband: "He felt cheated and lied to."

Mehlman doesn't deny saying nice things about Tampa at that meeting, but the issue for him, he says, was the possibility of a late-summer hurricane.

And then another letter came in August 2009: Want to bid again? Jilted, and wary that a third unsuccessful bid might leave an insecure city with lasting wounds, some wondered if it was worth the risk. Austin, meanwhile, was now over 80. His wife said he didn't need to tempt additional "heartbreak."

One more time, said the bullheaded optimist, one last shot, and in May 2010, in a conference room in the city's tourism offices, Austin and the others felt a great wave of relief when the voice that came across the speakerphone said the word they had been wanting and waiting to hear.


What will this mean?

"We will be more than ever before recognized as an emerging American city," Buckhorn said.

"It will forever change people's perception of the Tampa Bay area," Tampa Bay & Company president Kelly Miller said.

And after they leave, said Greco, especially business executives, they're going to come back, opting to move their businesses here — something that was said, too, before Tampa's first Super Bowl, 28 years ago. Tampa has grown since then — if it hadn't, it wouldn't have qualified for the convention — but city leaders still yearn for that one transformative event.

"This," Austin said recently in the seventh-floor office in the tan-brick building that bears his name, "is going to be the eye-opener for the world."

He is surrounded by what he has done, his view of the Marriott, the asphalt lots, the car-covered lanes of West Shore Boulevard, his shelves stocked with commemorative campaign tokens calling him Clean-Up Hitter, his walls here — like the walls in his home — a chronological collage of framed pictures of himself posing with politicians. Dole and Cheney and McCain. And with presidents. Ford. Reagan. The first Bush. The second Bush.

"I can raise money, and I can do it without difficulty," Austin said in April.

But the mountaintop takes its toll.

"It's beginning to wear me out," he said in May.

"We got into it without knowing how complex and stressful it would be," he said in June.

And finally in July: "This has not been as pleasant an experience as I thought it would be. . . . My only second thoughts are I never knew it would be this tough. I thought everybody would be so excited and so thrilled that all you'd have to say is 'I want your check' and they'd fall all over themselves. They don't understand. They don't see what I'm talking about.

"It's very disappointing," he said.

He coughed, that angry, chesty cough.

"Toughest cold I've ever had," he said. "I just can't shake it."

But fundraising wasn't done. There were people who had to be called. He picked up the phone, mere weeks left before the spotlit opening night at the arena downtown.

A few days later, back on the green-gray clay of the Tampa yacht club, the sun got higher and hotter. Morning was over. He sat on the side during a break in the set and sipped from a bottle of pink Gatorade. "I got nothing in the tank," he said, and his doctor checked his pulse and told him three more games. Austin nodded yes. The doctor left. Austin and the rest of the group played one more game, then another, then a third. Then a fourth and a fifth. Then a sixth and a seventh. "If I sit down, I won't get back up," he said. So he didn't.

Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.