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Tampa's 'Mr. Everything' dies at 85

Al Austin was chairman of the host committee and worked for years to bring the Republican National Convention to Tampa.

tbt* files (2012)

Al Austin was chairman of the host committee and worked for years to bring the Republican National Convention to Tampa.

For longtime devoted residents, it's easy enough to identify the distinctive signs that make this city shine.

One could point to Tampa International Airport; a significantly expanded University of Tampa; a bustling West Shore business district and a resilient MacDill Air Force Base — features that contributed to the Republican party choosing Tampa to host its 2012 national convention.

It's difficult to imagine what the city would look like without the man who was deeply involved in all of those successes — Al Austin.

Austin, a developer and civic leader known for his ability to secure funding for causes, especially his beloved GOP, died early Thursday , apparently in his sleep, his family said. He was 85.

"Just about everywhere you look, Al had a hand in it," said former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who called Austin's legacy almost "biblical."

Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda echoed that theme at Thursday's meeting when he told fellow council members that Austin — or, as Miranda dubbed him, "Mr. Everything" — had died at about 2:30 a.m.

Reaction came swiftly as political leaders paid tribute to a generous philanthropist and potent civic leader.

As finance chair of the Republican Party of Florida, Austin led one of the most successful political fundraising organizations in the country.

"He was a Republican in Hillsborough County when you could put them all in a phone booth," said former Gov. Bob Martinez. "And he was vocal about his party affiliation."

Over a 60-year career studded with lasting achievements, two stand out: Austin's development of WestShore Plaza and his work with the GOP.

"Al Austin was a real estate pioneer who shaped the physical landscape of Tampa," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "He was the first to truly understand the value that being in close proximity to Tampa International Airport and Pinellas County would have on developing the Westshore Business District into what it is today."

It was Austin who, perhaps more than any other figure in the local GOP, has connected power players to the area.

Gov. Rick Scott called Austin "one of the most influential Floridians to ever call Tampa Bay home."

Alfred Samuel Austin was born in 1929 in Springfield, Mass, the son of an egg farmer. He spent part of his youth in St. Petersburg and wanted to be a cartoonist.

He attended the University of Tampa for two years, then sold cars in Tampa. He had just come off a hitch in the Coast Guard in 1954 when he joined his father's construction business, building houses on Davis Islands.

Austin and his father, R.S. Austin, switched to commercial development in the 1960s, buying 17 acres between the newly built Interstate 275 and an old Army base that served as Tampa's first airport. In an area dominated by orange groves, pine forests and cow pastures, he started erecting office buildings off the two-lane road that would become West Shore Boulevard.

He tended to downplay the foresight his gamble entailed, of buying in when land was 67 cents a square foot. "If you could have predicted what all of this would be like 25 years ago, you'd be making billions instead of millions," Austin told the Times in 1988.

Still, his investment in the area through development (and later by advocating for wider roads and light rail) earned him another nickname: "Mr. West Shore."

In the sweep of his career, Austin "has done more for Tampa than anyone since (railroad tycoon) H.B. Plant," Tampa development attorney Ron Weaver said. "The parallels are very great . . . in some ways he helped fulfill H.B. Plant's dream that Tampa would be sustained by economic forces."

Much of that success, his family said, came about because of a momentous event in Austin's personal life — his 1959 marriage to Beverly Hartsell.

"He said he could not have done any of what he accomplished without her," said Nelson Guagliardo, Austin's son-in-law and vice president of the A.S. Austin Co. It was Beverly, Guagliardo said, who urged Austin to shed his social reticence and engage the public.

According to his son-in-law, Austin "was a very shy man in his early 30s."

"She was the one who said, 'Hey, you've had great success. You need to give back.' " Guagliardo said. "So they gave back to the community which they felt was the greatest place to live on earth."

Tampa's 'Mr. Everything' dies at 85 05/22/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 22, 2014 9:56pm]
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