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    GOP rally could cost taxpayers $10-million

    An FSU professor estimates the national convention could also inject $500-million into the bay area economy.

    By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 26, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Taxpayers could wind up footing the bill for $10-million of the $50-million needed to lure the Republican National Convention to Tampa, organizers disclosed Tuesday.

    The money would probably help pay for overtime police work, cleanup, utility bills and use of the Tampa Convention Center, the organizers said. The rest of the money would come from private donors, they said.

    The details emerged as the organizers -- a group of prominent, politically connected Tampa businessmen -- stepped up their campaign to sell the Tampa Bay area as the best of the five cities competing for the 2004 convention, scheduled for Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

    "We really want it," Al Austin, a businessman who has served as finance chairman for the Republican Party of Florida, told the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times. "We are being being aggressive about it."

    Austin offered a sharp critique of two competitors: Miami, he noted, is seeking both the GOP and the Democratic conventions, and he doubts the city can land either. New York, meantime, still suffers from its reputation as the target of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

    "A lot of people would have reservations about going to a convention in New York because of what happened on 9-11," Austin said.

    Tampa can offer the Republicans all the accommodations they need and can help the party politically with swing voters in Central Florida, organizers said.

    New Orleans and Boston are also vying for the Republican convention. The Republican National Committee could select two or three finalists within three weeks and make a final choice in the fall.

    Tampa would hold the convention at the Ice Palace and house reporters at the the Convention Center. Guests would stay in 20,000 hotel rooms in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and another 2,000 could stay at cruise ships docked in downtown Tampa.

    If Tampa makes the first cut, Austin said, the host committee will let the public see its detailed convention proposal.

    Officials now estimate they might use $6-million in tax funds to pay convention expenses. Most of that money would come from state funds, such as tourism grants and hotel taxes. About 2 percent to 3 percent would come from local government, said Paul Catoe, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau.

    Most taxpayer support would come from government agencies that donate services or offer the GOP discounts, Catoe said.

    While the committee may use hotel taxes, for example, the convention will generate far more hotel taxes because every hotel room in the region will be booked. Sales tax will rise as Republican visitors spend money too.

    "This is what convention people dream about," Austin said.

    A preliminary estimate done by a professor at Florida State University showed that the national convention could bring between $200-million and $500-million to the local economy.

    Mark Bonn, director of graduate studies at FSU's Dedman School of Hospitality, based the estimate on research done at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. He surveyed visitors there to find out how much money they spent.

    Austin and co-chair Dick Beard said the convention would expose hundreds of CEOs to Tampa as well. If they like what they see, many may book their next company convention in Tampa. They could even move their headquarters here.

    "Think of all the people who benefit," Austin said.

    Private fundraising done by Florida Republicans won't hurt local charities, either, since most donations will come from national companies, Austin said.

    The host committee that will raise funds includes executives from Outback Steakhouse, Home Shopping Network, Walter Industries, Publix Super Markets, Sykes Industries, and the Holland & Knight law firm. Others include the president of the University of South Florida and the publisher and president of the Tampa Tribune.

    Andrew Barnes, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Times, who attended Tuesday's briefing, will also serve on the host committee. He said he will offer "moral support" and might throw a party for convention journalists, but he won't raise money for the GOP.

    "We would have a role in building your house, and we are glad to do it," Barnes told the Republicans.

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