Price of bid for GOP shocks mayor

 Organizers' bid to host the '08 national convention relied on millions more from the city than the mayor envisioned.

Published June 7, 2006

TAMPA -- Mayor Pam Iorio said Tuesday the city would spend no more than $1-million to stage the 2008 Republican National Convention, even though bid organizers were counting on millions more.

Iorio said she made her limit clear to bid organizers and was surprised to learn Tuesday that the bid included $12.7-million from the city and other local governments. Details of the bid were secret until Monday.

"Any costs above that maximum amount must be reimbursed on a dollar-for-dollar basis by the host committee," she said. "If Tampa is selected as a finalist, it is our intention to include this limitation in the site city agreement."

Iorio said the convention would provide an economic benefit to Tampa, but "our city budget can't support any open-ended commitment."

The definition of "city" according to bid documents includes Hillsborough County and other regional jurisdictions, but Tampa would bear the bulk of the financial burden.

"They've done a great job with the bid and we're moving forward, but it's important to clarify the city's role," Iorio said.

Al Austin, chairman of Tampa's convention host committee, said he promised Iorio he wouldn't "create any extraordinary costs for the city. And if things worked out where she had problems, I'd work with her to resolve them."

Event organizers also hope to get $15-million from the state Legislature next year and to raise $39.2-million privately.

Florida's top Republican, Gov. Jeb Bush, honorary chairman of Tampa's convention host committee, said he will not lobby the Legislature for the money next year.

"I'm going to defer to the next governor and the next Legislature on that,'' said Bush, who leaves office in January.

He left open what role he might later play with the convention committee.

"I told them I wasn't going to raise any money this year for them simply because I want to take the limited amount we can raise and focus on electing Republicans, which I think is the bigger issue," he said. "Next year, we'll see what happens.''

Tampa is competing with Minneapolis, New York and Cleveland to host the event Sept. 1-4, 2008. The GOP is slated to name finalists by July 1 and pick a host city by January 2007.

Event supporters say the convention will bring $180-million in direct spending to Hillsborough County and have an indirect economic benefit of more than $300-million.

That's a big selling point for outgoing Florida Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who said he would be inclined to support the $15-million request for state money if he were still in the Legislature. He leaves office this year.

"We should expect if the Democratic Party had a similar opportunity, we would do the same thing," Lee said. "Ultimately what we want to do isn't something that will benefit a party or a candidate but will benefit the state from an economic development perspective.''

The next House speaker, Marco Rubio, R-Miami, said he hadn't seen the proposal but noted, "That's a lot of money. ... We'd have to look at the cost-benefit analysis of the bid. Obviously conventions are a big deal."

Organizers also plan to ask the Hillsborough County Commission for $9-million in tourist tax money. Some of that money would pay for a new roof and air conditioning improvements at the Tampa Convention Center.

Those upgrades need to be made whether or not the GOP comes to Tampa, said Gene Gray of the Tourist Development Council, which distributes money from a 5 percent hotel tax.

County Commissioners Ken Hagan and Brian Blair said they would support the request.

"That's what the tourist tax funds are for,'' said Hagan. "It's a heck of a lot preferable to ad valorem or any other revenue. This would be without question the largest convention and the greatest economic impact that the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County have ever seen."

Blair said news media coverage and residual benefits, such as increased convention bookings in the future, make the investment a worthy one. But he encouraged event organizers to ramp up their fundraising.

"It's always better to use private funds than taxpayer funds," he said. "They should shoot for as much as they possibly can."

Tampa City Council member Rose Ferlita, a Republican candidate for the County Commission, said she's "excited, excited, excited" by the possibility of the convention coming to Tampa, largely because of the economic benefit.

But like Blair, she said the fundraising goal of $39.2-million -- only one-third of the total cost of the event -- should be higher.

"That's where we particularly need to be aggressive," she said.

Austin said the budget is preliminary and the private goal may climb.

"We're probably going to make some serious revisions of plans," he said.

Whatever the goal, Austin said he would meet it.

Finance chairman of the Florida Republican Party, Austin is among Florida's most prolific Republican money-raisers, a part of every statewide political campaign since 1972.

He also raised more than $100,000 for the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2000 and more than $200,000 for the president's reelection. He helped organize an annual fundraising dinner in March that raised $3-million for the state party.

"We have a great fundraising team," Austin said.

Some cities that were invited to bid on national political conventions declined to do so because of cost.

Orlando officials spent months reviewing requests for proposals from the Democratic and Republican parties and passed on both.

They determined that the net gain would be "minimal when all economic factors are taken into consideration," according to a letter from a city economic adviser to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Miami also took a pass on the Republican National Convention.

"It's a big investment," said Bill Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Beyond the public money required, Talbert said Miami officials were skeptical they could get what they needed from private sources.

"We don't have any big corporate base from which to raise money. We have a handful of Fortune 500 companies, but the list is not that long," he said. "That's a challenge."

In the end, Miami chose piercings and tattoos over red, white and blue: The city wants to keep those dates in 2008 open in case MTV returns for its annual awards show, Talbert said. The music network staged its bash in Miami in 2004 and 2005.

"It's arguably one of hottest, hippest shows on the planet," Talbert said. "We'd love to have them back."

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Adam Smith contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or 813 226-3401.