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    Bay area goes all out to lure GOP

    The panel picking the site of the 2004 national convention is cheered and fed and feted as it checks out Tampa's charms.

    [Times photo: John Pendygraft]
    Members of the committee - from left, Jack Oliver, Ellen Williams and Ann Wagner - talk with the media at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday.

    By DAVID KARP, BABITA PERSAUD and TAMARA LUSH
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 7, 2002
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    TAMPA -- As she stepped off the airport shuttle Tuesday at Airside A, a cheering crowd and a beam of white television lights greeted Marcie Mendez, who had just returned from a business trip.

    "I thought I must be on the plane with a celebrity," she said, looking dazed.

    Not quite. She had landed at the same time as the entourage of Republican officials who will decide if Tampa gets to host the 2004 Republican National Convention.

    They were greeted like rock stars.

    Waiting for them were about 40 screaming Republicans with handmade signs that begged, "RNC: We really want this." There were official-looking security personnel with their arms crossed. And there were expectant local hosts, eager to whisk the group along.

    The committee members didn't have to wait for their luggage at baggage claim.

    "It was all automatic," said developer Dick Beard, co-chairman of the Tampa host committee, who was wearing a maroon elephant tie. "We had the chairman of the airport with us."

    Local officials have been prepping for this visit for 21/2 weeks. They want desperately to lure the Republican National Convention, one of the world's largest political events, to the Tampa Bay area for the first time.

    They say it will give Tampa national exposure, aid tourism during the slow season in August, and boost Tampa's convention business. The GOP convention draws more than 50,000 visitors, including journalists from around the world.

    But the convention comes with a big price tag. Taxpayers might have to chip in as much as $21.8-million, according to an early estimate. Private donations would cover the rest of the $50-million cost.

    "It's a huge business deal," said Ellen Williams, a Kentucky Republican who chairs the site selection committee. This was a return trip for Williams, who was born at MacDill Air Force Base.

    The committee, which also is visiting New Orleans and New York this week, flew out of the Big Easy on Tuesday. There, they dined at the House of Blues and raved about the lamb at the Commander's Palace.

    In Tampa on Tuesday night, they sipped cocktails and sampled hors d'oeuvres at the University Club, a private club with dark wood paneling on the 38th floor of One Tampa City Center.

    Then they went to the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, where they ate a traditional Spanish dinner of paella and flan, and took in a flamenco show.

    A lighted, moving billboard that said "Welcome to Tampa Bay ... We're Glad You're Here!" followed the group everywhere and was parked in the lot across from the Columbia when the two buses carrying the committee members arrived.

    Mayor Dick Greco and his wife got off the bus. So did Ed Turanchik, who led the failed effort to attract the 2012 Olympics, and former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

    "It's good to have you here in Florida," Columbia owner Richard Gonzmart said as he shook the men's hands and kissed the women on the cheek. "I've been cooking all day."

    The committee's tour began moments after they arrived at Tampa International Airport around 3:30 p.m. As members got off the airport shuttle, pirates with painted faces from Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla draped them in beads. The crowd chanted, "T-A-M-P-A!"

    After a quick conversation about the airport, they glided down escalators to baggage claim where preschoolers wearing red, white and blue hats greeted them with a rose.

    "We have been here 11 minutes, and we can tell it's great," Williams said.

    "We're happy to be in a state where the governor's name starts with Bush," added Jack Oliver, RNC deputy chairman.

    From the airport, committee members boarded a white tour bus with "First Priority" written on the side.

    They took the scenic route to their hotel, rolling past the Westshore Hyatt, Legends Field, Raymond James Stadium and International Plaza, where Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom were pointed out.

    "They were like 'Oh, wow,' " Beard said.

    Committee members, who are from all over the United States, asked about Orlando. They were interested in Outback having its headquarters here, Beard said.

    First Priority arrived at the Tampa Marriott Waterside a half hour late.

    Inside, the piano player pumped out Isn't She Lovely. An army of hotel managers in gold name tags waited to escort committee members to their room.

    "Is this the bus? Is this the bus?" yelled the bellhop as it pulled up.

    "Yes, this is them," said Nabil Salloum, resident manager, who was rushing around.

    Tourist Jim Kunzelman from Sarasota passed by.

    "Who's on the bus?" he asked.

    "The RNC site committee," someone answered.

    "Oh," Kunzelman said. "I thought it was Tom Petty."

    -- Information from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans and the Associated Press was used in this report. David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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