Civic leader Al Austin, Tampa's 'Mr. Everything,' dies at age 85

Al Austin played a role in many of Tampa’s biggest successes and that culminated in the city being awarded the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Al Austin played a role in many of Tampa’s biggest successes and that culminated in the city being awarded the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Published May 23, 2014

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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Austin — or, as Miranda dubbed him, "Mr. Everything" — had died about 2:30 a.m.

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

As finance chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Mr. 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: Mr. Austin's development of the West Shore business district 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.

Mr. 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.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Five decades later, West Shore is Tampa's highest-cachet corporate enclave and the largest office market in Florida, boasting more than 12 million square feet of office space. More than 93,000 work in its 6 million square feet of storefronts, 37 hotels, 250 restaurants and 4,000 businesses. More people work in the district than in downtown Tampa.

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," Mr. 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, Mr. Austin "has done more for Tampa than anyone since (railroad tycoon) H.B. Plant," Tampa development lawyer 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Nelson's son-in-law and vice president of the A.S. Austin Co. It was Beverly, Guagliardo said, who urged Mr. Austin to shed his social reticence and engage the public.

According to his son-in-law, Mr. 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."

Along with the shyness, Mr. Austin exhibited another trait some might not have predicted: a love of speed. In the 1980s, he was known to get his red Ferrari up to 130 mph. He liked his cars fast or elegant (he was also fond of Porsches and Bentleys) and his food simple. A night out at Bob Evans was high dining enough.

His quiet persistence hadn't changed since Mr. Austin became a go-to leader for Tampa. Over the years, he worked to stave off cuts to MacDill Air Force Base, served a dozen years as head of the board that runs Tampa International Airport and led the board of the University of Tampa.

Al and Beverly Austin also chaired the university's first comprehensive capital campaign, an ambitious $84-million renewal that added endowments to the school's college of business and Center for Ethics and underwrote the nine-story Vaughn Center, the multipurpose hub of student activity.

"I've been here for 25 years," said Dan Gura, UT's vice president of development, "and if I turned around and they weren't at an event or a meeting it was, 'Where's Al?' "

As for the Republican Party, Austin once told the Tampa Bay Times that he raised "probably a couple hundred million" dollars for local, state and national politicians who shared his beliefs. He was a delegate or an alternate at every GOP convention since 1972 and was chairman of the local host committee that brought international attention to Tampa in August 2012 with the Republican convention that nominated Mitt Romney for president.

He had worked just as hard to bring the GOP convention to Tampa in 2004 and 2008, losing to New York City and Minneapolis.

"He was turned down not once but twice, but he never gave up," said Mel Sembler, the St. Petersburg developer and GOP fundraiser. "The third time he accomplished his goal."

Doing so was Mr. Austin's proudest accomplishment.

"What I would really want to highlight about Al Austin is his tenacity," said former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "When he decided that we were a large enough community to host the Republican National Convention, he simply was not going to quit until it was done. Period."

Austin also showed leadership as a prostate cancer survivor. Diagnosed in 2002, he joined Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, banker Bob Samuels and others in supporting the National Prostate Cancer Coalition. He urged other men to take stock of a subject many tended to avoid and get prostate screenings.

Because Mr. Austin was so active, no one saw his death coming. As usual, he had spent Wednesday at work, where Sembler said he was planning a new real estate project in the West Shore area.

"He has given back to this community and to this country every day that I've known him," said Greco. "If everybody just did a little bit of what Al Austin did, this community would be a better place."

Times staff writers Adam C. Smith, Philip Morgan, Alex Leary, Jeff Harrington, Julie Kliegman, Steve Bousquet, Amy Scherzer and Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Editor's note

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Tampa businessman Al Austin spearheaded development of the West Shore business district but was not the developer of the WestShore Plaza shopping mall. A story Friday about Austin's death was incorrect.