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Visitors bureau backs GOP bid

Despite questions about the amount of taxpayer money required to stage the 2004 Republican National Convention, local convention planners remain solidly behind the effort to bring it to town.

The board of the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau on Thursday cast a unanimous vote of confidence in continuing to pursue the bid.

A who's who of the Hillsborough County visitor industry, board members said local government money is used for almost every other public event staged in Tampa. Conventions and major sports events such as the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four got financial backing from local government. So should a convention that will bring more than $100-million from free-spending conventioneers to town and generate reams of worldwide publicity about the region, they said.

"Going after this convention is absolutely what we should be doing," said Bob Morrison, president of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association.

"Hosting a national political convention will put us in the same league with the few cities that can claim to have hosted one," said Tom Dempsey, owner of Saddlebrook Resort. "It would change the convention industry's view of our market _ forever. If we back out now, we will never be taken seriously again."

A nonprofit corporation that gets most of its $5.9-million budget from a tax on hotel bills, the visitors bureau's job is to promote the tourism industry.

The move to close ranks comes at a critical time. A GOP site inspection team tours the area for three days beginning Aug. 6. High on the team's list is checking the support of local leaders and governments. The bureau's bid is filled with endorsement letters from local and state elected leaders. But the bureau didn't plan to formally hit up any of them for government money until after the fall elections.

The bureau hoped to keep its bid secret to keep competing cities from seeing it. But the plan went awry after reporters argued it was a public record subject to the state's open records law. On the advice of attorneys, the bureau allowed reporters to read _ but not make copies of _ the bid document that helped make Tampa a finalist for the convention along with New York City and New Orleans.

The bid included $21.9-million in cash and in-kind help from local and state governments to stage the convention. The rest of the proposed $50-million convention budget would be raised from private donations or by selling sponsorships. National parties also get an additional $25-million from the federal government to stage their conventions.

Bureau officials say their budget contains only ballpark estimates based on what the GOP's last convention cost local sponsors in Philadelphia. They expect a lot of negotiations before any deal is set. They figured serious fundraising will not begin until Tampa wins the bid.

Much of the local government help would pay for police security required of most large events and the cost of using shuttle buses and an armada of limos to ferry about 20,000 delegates from hotels in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to the convention hall in downtown Tampa. Government commonly picks up those sorts of expenses for conventions, although sometimes hotels pay for shuttles. Other expenses range from building the elaborate sets to convert the Ice Palace into a convention hall lighted for TV to providing 35,000 square feet of office space to the GOP convention planning staff for a year.

Meanwhile, Andrew Barnes, chairman and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Times, on Thursday resigned as one of dozens of local corporate executives on the host committee, citing a dispute between the newspaper's reporters and the committee over access to the bid document.

"I would like to see the convention in the Tampa Bay area," he said. "But I felt that if we are in a fight over what we see as a public document, it becomes a conflict of interest and I should get out of the way."

_ Mark Albright can be reached at albrightsptimes.com or (727) 893-8252. David Karp can be reached at karpsptimes.com or (813) 226-3376.

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