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11 months not 11th hour, but Final Four gains urgency

They have traveled to San Antonio, Texas, twice, looking for advice on how to attract volunteers, transform a city with banners and energize a community for the premier event in college basketball.

With the Tampa Bay 1999 Final Four only 11 months away, the time has come for those running the high-stakes event to do rather than watch.

So far, members of the Tampa Bay Local Organizing Committee have taken baby steps to make 40,000 fans happy during the four-day basketball extravaganza in March.

"It's going to become a more breakneck pace," said Michael Kelly, the organizing committee's director. "We're right in step, if not ahead of the NCAA schedule."

A delegation of Pinellas officials, including St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, spent 24 hours last week in San Antonio, host of this year's Final Four. In March, more than 35,000 out-of-towners crowded San Antonio's downtown restaurants, shops and hotels, spending more than $14-million.

NCAA officials and fans were effervescent in their praise for the Alamo City, saying the volunteer corps, the decorations and the convenience of being able to walk everywhere made the 1998 competition unparalleled.

Though the NCAA doesn't have an official list of spots it intends to revisit, officials said San Antonio would be a lock. Fischer wants St. Petersburg to make the unofficial Final Four rotation, but he knows that will depend on the region's performance next year.

"Because now the NCAA wants at least 40,000 seats, only a handful in the nation can handle that," he said. "When they came here to the South Regional, we kind of looked half-baked. When they come back, it's going to be night and day."

The delegation peppered San Antonio's mayor and local organizing committee members with questions: How do we involve residents who can't get tickets? How do we discourage ticket scalping and illegal merchandise sales? How do we make the police tourist-friendly? How do we coordinate volunteers and staff the command center?

"Your people who were here mentioned that you all have experience putting on big events," said Bob Coleman, chairman of San Antonio's Local Organizing Committee and a former president and chief executive of the Spurs NBA team. "You need to draw on that experience and make sure the organization is in place."

Kelly, the Final Four director, has hired a staff for his Clearwater headquarters but still is assigning volunteer coordinators to run a dozen committees. The local organizing committee starts meeting monthly this summer.

He is ironing out a schedule for completing tasks and a plan to hoist matching banners throughout the Tampa Bay area. Volunteers are seeking proposals for a shuttle service to link the region's cities.

"I think we'll stack up well with Northern cities because of our beaches," Fischer said. "They're coming to us at a perfect time of year for recreation. Despite the fact that they'll have to go 20 miles to their hotels, many of those hotels are on the best beaches."

Kelly and others have not yet focused their efforts on getting business owners, restaurateurs or other community members interested in helping. That effort will begin in earnest this summer, when officials meet regularly with business groups.

Much needs to be done in recruiting volunteers to supplement those who worked during the NCAA South Regional basketball games at Tropicana Field.

Hoteliers will get their first taste of the massive size of the event Tuesday, when NCAA officials meet with them to talk about where coaches and teams will stay. The Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association will show off a collection of pictures to illustrate how hotels were decorated in San Antonio.

Tampa officials, who will host the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention and NCAA Hoops City fan attraction, did not join their Pinellas counterparts in San Antonio.

Jim Wood, a spokesman for the Tampa/Hillsborough convention group, said they learned all they needed to when they attended the Final Four in March.

The success of Tampa Bay's event rests not just on mimicking what worked for San Antonio but coming up with ways to show fans such a good time they will want to come back. While crossing their fingers for balmy beach weather, officials also will try to bridge the distinct parts of the bay area.

"People naturally consider us a community," Wood said. "Without the (Tampa) convention center, there's no Final Four. Without Tropicana Field, there's no Final Four. Everything here has to portray us together as one."

_ Times news researcher Barbara Oliver contributed to this report.