Hosting RNC is Austin's crowning achievement
TAMPA - Al Austin wears two hats in his work on the Republican National Convention, and he's put one of them aside for a while. The man credited with bringing the convention to Tampa did so, in part, as a nationally known fund-raiser for Republican causes. But Austin, a developer, also is a Tampa booster and chairman of the nonpartisan Host Committee throwing the RNC party. "The convention is being held in Tampa because of Al Austin," said former Tampa Bay & Co. chief executive Paul Catoe, among other local leaders who helped win the convention. Today, as he talks about this capstone of his work as a volunteer, the 83-year-old Austin dismisses questions about politics, focused as he is on the committee's goal of raising $55 million for convention events.He sat down recently to talk about the convention with anchor Gayle Guyardo of News Channel 8. Here are highlights. Q: What do you think about the convention coming together as the area heads out of the recession? A: "This has been our version of the stimulus plan. There will be more than $200 million in direct expenditures, probably much more that we cannot estimate yet." Q: Beyond the political exposure from the convention, how will it be a game changer for the entire Tampa area? A: "The summer tourist season ends here about Aug. 15 when the kids go back to school and hotel occupancy customarily drops to 30 percent the rest of the month. The convention will keep hotels at maximum capacity, with people coming in early and staying late. "We have news media people starting to come in now. Then we will have delegates from throughout the country, from Washington and Idaho, who will say not stay for just the convention. "They will be saying, 'Let's go to the beaches, let's go to Disney, let's go to the Keys.' So it will be good for all of Florida, not just the Tampa area. "But it's also about long term opportunities. This is a dream come true. We get exposure with people throughout the country and internationally. It's not just a one-shot greeting for economic development. "You get a chief executive officer from another state who meets with chief executives from here and learns about things they did not know existed in the Tampa area. We think they will return." Q: How could Tampa compete with other places to attract the convention? A: "We are not a national convention city, not yet. But Miami and Orlando, they would not touch this kind of convention because it would affect their repeat visitor business they've established and they would have to build that back up. "Both the Republicans and Democrats require 15,000 hotel rooms within 45 minutes of the convention site and we have that. We have a hockey arena with seats on four sides that makes it ideal, compared with past convention sites. "You will be able to use a covered walkway between the Forum and Convention Center." Q: How are security plans working out? A: "We have to have 15,000 hotel rooms,15,000 news media are coming and now they are saying 15,000 protestors are expected. I take issue with that number. It will be known what protestors plan to attend. If a few anarchists pop up, security will be ready. We have a very safe city. And we have MacDill Air Force Base. I know what they can do …" Q: So this should be good for everyone locally, Republicans and Democrats alike? A: "We have a lot of opportunities for small business to participate. Democrats and Republicans own businesses here. We don't ask what party people are who are making money. The convention will help improve the economy and everybody should be behind this." Q: Why did you take on recruiting and hosting the RNC at this stage in your career? A: "It means everything at my age because I want to see others take advantage of opportunities I had here. "My dad bought properties that were 100 feet wide and 160 feet deep at auction on Martinique on Harbour Island in 1929 for $8,000 to $8,500 when there was nothing there. Today people pay $2.5 million to get those lots and take down the houses and build new ones. "You look at all the development in recent years — the museums, the stadiums, the new hotels. It's almost endless. I still like it when I see new buildings going up even though I'm not looking at opportunities for myself.