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GOP chairman visits Tampa to prepare for 2012 convention

TAMPA — Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele paid a visit Thursday to formally recognize the selected host of the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Given that the news is a week old, Steele's visit served as a pep rally for local organizers, as well as the kickoff of the more than two years of work that will go into pulling off the event.

Steele promised a convention that will feature local and state culture prominently, hire small minority- and female-run companies and enable the public to participate. He also said it will bring jobs and a much-needed boost to a Florida economy, and predicted it would exceed past conventions.

Perhaps as important, he said, it should be pretty fun.

"The potential for Tampa to just blow the roof off it for me is exciting," Steele told local organizers at the St. Pete Times Forum, where the convention will be based. "I'll be honest with you, at the end of the day, I just want to come to a place and have a good time. I just want to come to a convention … where I can just let what little hair I have left down."

Asked a question about concerns for hurricanes threatening during the planned August convention, Steele said the weather can cause problems wherever a convention is held. Looking out through the windows of the Times Forum, he added, "I'm looking at blue skies, warm weather and shorts."

Paul Catoe, the head of the tourist marketing group Tampa Bay & Co., was quick to pipe up that the last hurricane to hit the region directly was in 1921.

Steele didn't break much news, though he said there are plans to create a convention village, where conventioneers can sample the local fare. Through the village, those who don't get into the convention will be able to get a civics lesson. Details are still to come, though recent past conventions have had a similar feature.

On a more practical level, Thursday's visit marked the start of negotiations between the Republican National Committee, the host committee in Tampa, operators of the St. Pete Times Forum and leaders of local government on how the convention will unfold. Steele said he hopes that work will result in agreements that the national committee can review when it meets in August for the formal selection of Tampa by its full 168-member body.

(Tampa has been chosen only by the site-selection committee, though the ratification by the full committee is considered a formality.)

Ken Jones, the acting chief executive officer of the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee Inc., said paperwork was filed Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission making his outfit the formal host committee for the convention. On Thursday, paperwork was filed with the Internal Revenue Service to make the committee a charitable, nonprofit organization.

While the convention is inherently political, the group charged with putting it on has to function as a nonpolitical entity, he said.

In the months leading up the ratification, his group is tasked with coming up with agreements with the national committee, the city and operators of the Times Forum. Much more work will go into future agreements on issues such as transportation and security, Jones said.

Businessman Al Austin, one of the key players in helping land Tampa the convention after two unsuccessful prior bids, served as the emcee of Thursday's introductions. He said he is already hearing from people wanting to be one of the 10,000 volunteers that it will take to stage the event.

He joked with Steele, "I'm sorry you have to wait 2 1/2 years to have a good time."

Steele said this would be the first of many visits.

"I'll be back," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

GOP chairman visits Tampa to prepare for 2012 convention 05/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2010 12:23am]

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