By JANET ZINK, Times Staff Writer
The national convention site team praises the Tampa Bay area, but gives no hint of its choice.
ST. PETERSBURG - They behaved like perfect guests, gathering for photographs, laughing at jokes and praising their hosts for being so cordial.
But as they scurried off Tuesday toting party favors like latex elephants dressed as Superman and clocks from the Dali Museum, the team charged with selecting a site for the 2008 Republican National Convention offered no clues about Tampa's chances of winning the event.
When questioned individually, team members responded almost uniformly with something along the lines of: "The hospitality has been wonderful."
Indeed, the group experienced an almost Disney-like taste of Tampa Bay with a chartered bus always waiting at the curb, Tropicana Field as their private playground and a parting gift of $7-million.
Richard Graber, Republican Party chairman of Wisconsin and a site selection committee member, said he couldn't wait to tell his 16-year-old son about tossing a ball Tuesday with fellow Republican Jeff Kent of Washington at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
"I've never played on a big league field before," he said. "It was fun."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker squatted on the field and played catcher while Sharon Day, a committeewoman from Florida, swung a bat.
At a news conference later, Al Austin, chairman of the group attempting to lure the convention to Tampa, announced that he had raised $7-million toward the event.
"That was just in the last 15 minutes," he said.
And who are those donors?
"My friends," answered Austin, a Tampa developer often credited with turning the West Shore area into one of Florida's largest business districts.
Austin said he approached people with the ability and inclination to give. "You pick the low-lying fruit first, then you reach high," he said.
The team also left with a rosy impression of Tampa's public transportation system, based in part on a 90-second ride on Tampa's streetcar.
"It appears to me that you have very good public transportation," said Jo Ann Davidson, co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee and head of the convention site selection team, who missed the streetcar trip.
"I have not had an opportunity to ride on your public transportation, but I have had an opportunity to look at it," she said.
In reality, the Tampa Bay area has no light rail or subway system as some of the competing cities do.
Most buses in Tampa stop running at 8 p.m. and only 4 percent of the county's bus stops actually provide shelter from the sun and rain, according to Jill Cappadoro, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
The GOP group tooled around town on a chartered bus that took them everywhere from the beach at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Hotel to the University of Tampa and the Columbia Restaurant in Hillsborough.
And that's how conventioneers will be transported from hotels to convention and meeting venues, according to event organizers.
That's okay with the Republicans.
"Public transportation is very helpful, but not essential," Davidson said.
Throughout the Republicans' visit, Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau staff and security guards from the Tampa Police Department, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and other local law enforcement agencies kept the curious away while the Republicans dined on chocolate fondue at the Tampa Convention Center and listened to a gospel choir at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg.
"They were using this as a training exercise for dignitary visits," said Karen Brand, vice president of communications for the Visitors Bureau. "They did a phenomenal job."
The visit also revealed that the budget for the convention is a moving target.
Original bid documents included a $124-million budget for the event. But convention organizers this week presented a leaner $64-million budget, reduced in part by removing $38-million that will come from the federal government if Congress deems the convention a national security event.
Meanwhile, projected costs likely to be incurred by the city of Tampa have risen from $12.7-million to $15.7-million, according to chief of staff Darrell Smith. The increase comes from revised estimates for overtime pay and other personnel costs.
Smith said he expects the number to keep going up. "It will be a continuing evolutionary process as we come up with new items that were not initially considered or are significantly different in cost," he said.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has agreed to offer $1-million in cash and $3.2-million of in-kind support for the event. Any other city costs need to be paid back to the city either with private dollars, state funds organizers plan to ask the state Legislature for $15-million, or in-kind services from other jurisdictions enlisted to help with security.
St. Petersburg Mayor Baker said Tuesday he has not been asked yet to help with security.
"We have to look at that," he said. "But I assume the event would reimburse us."
Using his 15-minute, $7-million fundraising coup as evidence, Austin said Tuesday he and the host committee will come up with any money necessary to pay for convention costs.
Davidson praised the enthusiasm of Austin and the other committee members, and said that's a key consideration.
But ultimately, she said, choosing a city for the convention is a business decision. "You have to be hard-nosed about this."
Up next: Cleveland.
Davidson and the rest of the delegation headed Tuesday to her home state for their final site visit. Minneapolis and New York City also are competing to host the event. A winner will be announced by early next year.
Brand said she considered the visit a success.
"I think they really enjoyed themselves," Brand said. "For Jo Ann Davidson to take her shoes off while wearing panty hose and step into the Gulf of Mexico is a pretty good indication that she was enjoying herself."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.