Florida pundits have a saying: As goes the influential I-4 corridor connecting Tampa to Orlando to Daytona, so goes the state. That’s why Tampa real estate developer Al Austin may be one of the most important people in the nation this year when it comes to presidential politics.
You won’t find Austin’s name on any ballot. But as chairman of the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee, he is the lead person responsible for selling the I-4 anchor city to the Republican National Committee as the site of the convention Aug. 27-30.
Yes, there’s little doubt the I-4 corridor will play a critical role in deciding who wins Florida’s 29 electoral votes. And odds are that, as Tampa goes, so goes I-4.
So if Austin and his colleagues can pull off the herculean task of hosting an excellent convention while millions of eyes around the globe focus on this beautiful city on Florida’s west coast, it will greatly boost the GOP nominee’s chances in November.
After all, Florida broke for Obama 51 percent to 49 percent in 2008. Some analysts believe the fact that strategically positioned Tampa is hosting the Republican convention this cycle could change that.
Austin, of course, won’t tell you any of this. As the head of a 501C3 nonprofit, he remains studiously nonpolitical to avoid running afoul of the taxman. But the fact remains that losing Florida would greatly complicate Team Obama’s task of garnering the 270 electoral votes needed to win re-election.
For Austin, landing the GOP convention for Tampa was the culmination of a dream. The self-effacing real estate developer has labored in the fields of Sunshine State politics since at least 1972, when he served as a delegate to that year’s GOP convention in Miami Beach — the last time a Republican convention took place in the state.
A self-confessed political junkie, Austin has attended every GOP presidential convention since then, either as a delegate or an alternate.
In his first two attempts to woo a convention to Tampa, in 2004 and 2008, he suffered bitter setbacks. But luckily for Austin and his fellow Floridians, the third attempt was the charmed one. Perhaps it helped that Forbes magazine named Tampa the fifth-best outdoor city in America.
Austin, the leading developer of the city’s upscale Westshore business district, believes the convention will attract international attention not only to Tampa but also to sister cities St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Preparations are already well under way for an event that Austin predicts will be the biggest in the state’s history:
- The host committee (2012Tampa.com) has raised about half of the $55 million it needs to attract to host the event. It is an impressive accomplishment, especially given the difficult economic headwinds.
- Although the host committee raises the money, it doesn’t get to spend it. The power of the checkbook belongs to the RNC Committee on Arrangements.
- Tampa will accommodate a small army of journalists leading up to, and during, the convention. About 15,000 members of the media will be stationed at the 600,000 square-foot Tampa Convention Center.
- The main venue for the convention is the Tampa Bay Times Forum, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning NHL team. That facility recently experienced a $40 million facelift, courtesy of Jeffrey Vinik, the Lightning’s new owner.
- More than 100 convention-related events will occur at offsite venues in the Tampa area.
- The host committee also is responsible for recruiting and training the 8,000 to 10,000 volunteers needed to help coordinate the GOP convention.
- About 35,000 visitors are expected to visit Tampa over the four days of the event.
- The GOP convention is expected to inject a cool $200 million into the state’s economy — and that’s before any of the fancy “multipliers” the economic-development gurus like to use.
- Each political party will receive $50 million from the Department of Homeland Security. The network of surveillance cameras and other equipment, much of which will not be disclosed to the public, will be state-of-the-art.
- CEOs from 49 other states will be visiting, and Austin is making special arrangements to greet them warmly “to see if we can’t convince them to think about coming here or establishing a presence here in our state,” he says.
- About 15,000 hotel rooms have been blocked out just for the states, their delegations, the RNC, and major donors.
Austin’s enthusiasm for the project is infectious. “You know, there isn’t enough money in the world to buy the exposure we’re going to get,” he says proudly.
Organizers plan to lay additional fiber optics and cables between the convention center and the forum to accommodate the media. The power company is putting backup transformers and infrastructure online to ensure a steady flow of juice — no matter what.
Luckily, the host committee has no shortage of energy either. State and local leaders, from the governor’s office on down, are standing by to do whatever it takes to pull off what arguably is the most important political gathering Florida has ever seen.
“When you get down into all these minute details, it’s unbelievable what it takes to put one of these things together,” Austin says. “But the excitement of it all gives us the adrenaline rush we need to keep it going.
“We’ve got such a super venue, so much local support and enthusiasm for this,” he says. “And in a tough economic climate, we’re doing well in fund-raising. All the signs indicate we’re going to have a huge success.”
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