CINCINNATI -- Florida real estate developer Al Austin may be 85, but his colleagues say age hasn’t slowed him down.
Lawyer Ken Jones once called Austin “one of the most persistent human beings I've ever met.”
That trait, Austin said, will be essential for Cincinnati leaders as they try to lure the Republican National Committee’s convention to the Queen City in 2016.
Austin was chairman of the Tampa Bay Host Committee, and the person most credited with attracting the RNC’s convention to the city in 2012. Jones was the Host Committee’s CEO.
“You have to want to do it awfully bad, because it’s hard work,” Austin said by telephone.
“It’s an over-the-top type commitment for the person involved,” he added. “Once you’re in, you’re in up to your neck.”
A Florida native, Austin got his start building waterfront homes during the 1950s. Within a decade, he expanded his business to include office and commercial properties.
At the same time he was growing his business, Austin set his sights on helping build the Republican Party’s presence in the Sunshine State. Back then, the South was mostly Democratic territory, and the GOP’s meager showing in the 1964 presidential election discouraged Austin. He was a big supporter of Barry Goldwater, who won just six states.
Over the next two decades, Austin got busy with helping the GOP in whatever way he could.
As he actively recruited new members and raised money for candidates, Austin worked to get Claude Kirk elected as Florida governor in 1966. He also was chair of President Nixon’s reelection campaign in Hillsborough County in 1972.
Later, he became the finance chair for the Florida Republican Party. During his eight years in the role, Austin raised millions of dollars for the state’s GOP, making it the largest among its 49 counterparts.
And that, Austin said, is the key trait needed to attract the RNC’s convention.
“The reason why they came here, these things need an awful lot of money to stage,” he said. “It needs someone who knows how to raise cash.”
Austin worked long days to raise the $55 million in private donations the RNC required to mount the event.
Perhaps the most important point for Cincinnati leaders to remember is this one: Even with Austin’s prodigious fundraising skills, Tampa only prevailed on its third bid.
The RNC first solicited Tampa to seek the convention in 2004, and the city eventually made the short list along with New York and New Orleans. Because it was the first presidential election after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Austin was certain the Big Apple would win – and it did.
Tampa tried again four years later, and was a finalist along with Cleveland, but St. Paul, Minn., won that contest.
The RNC came calling again in 2012.
Against the advice of his wife and some friends, Austin and other Tampa business leaders decided to take another shot. All the preparation for the previous bids paid off and the city was selected in 2010, giving it two years to get ready for the onslaught of people and attention.
Tampa beat two other finalists, Salt Lake City and Phoenix. The latter also is seeking to win the 2016 event, one of eight cities vying for the honor.
Besides Phoenix and Cincinnati, the others are Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City and Las Vegas.
Two dozen cities were invited by RNC to submit bids for the 2016 event.
Local leaders were scheduled to present Cincinnati’s bid package at RNC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., on March 3. It was delayed until March 21 due to icy weather.
Under Cincinnati's bid, the RNC’s convention would be held at U.S. Bank Arena along the riverfront. Other facilities also likely would be involved for housing and related events, like the dormitories at Northern Kentucky University, Xavier University’s Cintas Center and the Duke Energy Convention Center.
Cincinnati’s bid package was 155 pages long, but has not been released publicly.
The RNC will spend the next few weeks reviewing the bids, then will shorten the lists of finalists by late spring.
Once the list is narrowed, an RNC committee will make site visits, said spokesman Ryan Mahoney.
“Visits will take place mid- to late spring and the list will be narrowed down further after that,” Mahoney said.
In late summer or fall, the full RNC will vote where to hold its event.
Although Tampa won in 2012, concerns from some RNC leaders in previous years proved accurate when the convention’s start was delayed a day due to the approach of Hurricane Isaac.
Despite the late start, the convention was a boon for the city. A University of Tampa study found the RNC event had an economic impact of $404 million.
The amount included $214 million in direct spending by the groups that hosted the convention, including the city of Tampa; $104 million in induced spending,
the amount spend on purchases due to the event; and $88 million in indirect spending, mostly business to business transactions.
Also, the state of Florida spent $282,000 protecting the various governors who attended.
“The bottom line, at the end of the day, we spent a ton of money,” Austin said. “It wasn’t easy to raise. People asked, ‘What do we get out of it?’”
Many businesses and residents were won over, believing it helped Tampa be seen as a national player. The media exposure would help attract other conventions and boost tourism, they said.
“It was a super-good event and we’ve gotten a lot of business benefits from it,” Austin said.
“It was a community-driven effort,” he added. “It didn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans, they made money off of it.”
The state of Ohio has pledged $10 million to any Ohio city that may be selected.
In all, Tampa hosted 4,400 delegates, 15,000 members of the media and assorted other dignitaries.
Austin outlined some of the criteria the RNC seeks from bidding cities. They include:
- A proper venue for the convention that can accommodate 20,000 people, with seating for at least 18,000;
- Enough hotel rooms for 50,000 people within a 45-minute drive of the venue;
- Adequate space for national and international media, who outnumber actual RNC delegates and elected officials;
- Creating the elaborate stage where speakers will stand, including the party’s eventual presidential nominee.
In Tampa, the stage cost $2.5 million and took 30,000 hours to build. It featured 13 large LED panels behind the podium.
One of the chief aspects, Austin said, is a facility that can handle the technological demands of such a high-profile event.
The 2012 RNC Convention was held at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the arena that is home to the city’s hockey team. Lightning Owner Jeffrey Vinik ended up paying about $40 million to upgrade the site.
“The forum had to have extensive work done to meet all of their requirements,” Austin said.
John F. Barrett, president and CEO of Western & Southern Financial Group, is leading Cincinnati’s effort behind the scenes.
Austin is acquainted with Barrett, adding the Queen City businessman has the kind of style that will give Cincinnati an edge over the competition.
“If it’s somebody like that, you may have a shot,” Austin said. “It just depends on how bad you want it.”
For more stories by Kevin Osborne, visit www.wcpo.com/osborne . Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwcpo