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Millions for partying, pennies for doing good

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2002

Last year, United Way raised $28.4-million in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The money went to social agencies across the bay area.

Last year, United Way raised $28.4-million in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The money went to social agencies across the bay area.

That $28.4-million may sound like a lot to you. Let me put it in some context.

Bay area Republicans who are putting together Tampa's bid for the 2004 Republican National Convention say they need $55-million.

That's basically double what United Way collected.

In both cases, the money is privately raised from individuals and businesses.

But unlike the people from United Way, who struggled and struggled in the face of a wobbly economy to meet their goal, the Republicans brag that they will face no problem collecting that $55-million from party members, largely from Pinellas and Hillsborough's wealthiest families and businesses.

The way conventions work, a city has to pay for the privilege of hosting the event. That's what the $55-million is for. The Republicans will get to decorate and manage the Ice Palace, where the convention would be held, as they like.

The locals get stuck with almost everything else: building work space for the reporters who come to town, hiring experts in communications and transportation, paying for office space, security.

All these things are the fine print in a much bigger picture.

Al Austin, a Tampa businessman and GOP fundraiser with strong national party connections, speaks brightly about how all eyes will be on Tampa for a week. Publicity like that you can't buy. And, he said, the delegates will be big spenders -- pumping millions into the local economy.

But that $55-million will be buying something else, for a few.

The big contributors will be buying themselves a nice chunk of access to top Republicans, all the way to the White House. The rest of us, meanwhile, will remain on the other side of the police barricade.

It would be no different if the Democrats were coming to town. They'd be making the same calls, writing the same checks, holding the same gold-plated cocktail parties and setting up the same barricades.

The question would also be the same:

Why is it easy to raise money to bring a carefully managed national pep rally to town, and so hard to raise money to do good in the community?

And talk about doing good: United Way helps fund abuse shelters, drug treatment programs, cancer support groups, Scouts, YMCAs.

When the last campaign sign has been dumped in the trash, these agencies will still be doing their work. They will still need financial support.

Al Austin was correct when he said that a national political convention would give Tampa (make that Tampa Bay) extraordinary publicity. We've been chasing this sort of attention, like a hungry pup after a bone, for as long as I can remember.

We chased Super Bowls, the NCAA basketball Final Four, professional baseball and the Olympics with this motivation. It was as though we believed an external event could do what we couldn't do for ourselves -- namely remake the community that will still be here when, as in this case, the big political party leaves town.

If you're chasing after national publicity, wouldn't it be nice to be known as a good place to raise and educate your kids, or to work in a high-tech job? Wouldn't it be great if the tour buses were bringing in people from other cities asking how Tampa Bay pulled off that one?

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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