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P.R. is not the problem

Tampa tourism chief Paul Catoe was right: the misstep this week by organizers trying to land the 2004 Republican National Convention was a public relations "nightmare." But not for the reasons Catoe would have you believe. The group's biggest problem is not public relations but rather getting its larger act together and working in concert with local and state political leaders.

Catoe and his team made a messy mistake by failing to honor a commitment organizers made to disclose details of the bid document. The public has a right to know what the event would cost, because the public is being asked to subsidize the convention with millions of dollars in taxpayer funds. The bid committee is serving in a quasi-public function, and its business _ in the spirit, if not the letter, of Florida's open government laws _ obligates it to work in the sunshine.

There's no need for organizers in Tampa to be defensive about needing public money. Every city bidding for the 2004 event is ready to spend tax money for security, cleanup and other expenses, so it only hurts to belabor the point. However, the Tampa promoters do need to be upfront with the public. The public deserves an idea of how much money would be involved, where it would go and what it could expect in return. With a little candor, the bid committee can make a compelling case for Tampa Bay.

The group should be less concerned about publicity at this point than in building bridges to newer party leaders and overcoming the long history of parochialism in Tampa Bay. The bid committee, made up largely of old-line Republicans and downtown business interests, did a poor job of lining up support with younger Republican leaders. The incoming state House speaker, Republican Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, said he thought the convention should be privately funded, although he left the door open for a state contribution at some point. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said his cash-strapped city had little or no money to contribute. Pinellas County officials said the same, even though the bid presumes Bay area governments would chip in $5-million.

This go-now, advise-later approach typifies the way Tampa power brokers have long chosen to do things. The committee needs to learn from this mistake and get the bid on-track. Let's deal with using tax money first. Many sources of public money are appropriate to spend for such a convention, most notably tourist tax dollars and state tourism and development grants. Tampa has spent tens of millions of tax dollars to attract convention business. Hosting the GOP would give the region a huge boost, and jump-start the city's investment in the Ybor-Channelside entertainment district.

No one, at this stage, is trying to hold the committee to a definite figure. Tampa still must beat out the other finalists, New York and New Orleans, and an announcement isn't expected until January. Byrd and others also have suggested they are open to supporting the convention with public dollars. The fuss organizers made over disclosing details of the bid, and low-balling the level of public support, now at $21.8-million, hurt their credibility more than their competitiveness. They won't pull off the convention if they keep raising suspicion at home.

The committee co-chair, developer Dick Beard, a trustee for the University of South Florida, has the experience in public life to grasp the importance of this oversight role. If Tampa's chances are good, and we believe they are, the committee should want to avoid a repeat of this early public relations "nightmare." Tampa Bay residents will support the effort if they believe the bid committee is truly serving a public purpose.