Ken Jones, CEO and executive director of the Tampa Host Committee for the Republican National Convention, is usually a pleasant, mild-mannered guy. But suggest to him that Tampa’s selection as the site of RNC 2012 was a done deal in advance, and he gets a little touchy.
“I don’t think anybody thought at the time that it was ours to lose,” the 40-year-old private equity exec told CL recently. In his RNC role, Jones has spent more time than anybody over the past two years readying Tampa for its greatest moment in the national spotlight.
The Cigar City had been in the hunt to host the 2004 and 2008 RNCs, but lost out both times, with the loss to Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2006 being especially painful.
As Tampa fielded a bid one more time in 2010, its only competitors were Salt Lake City and Phoenix, western cities that, like Tampa, had never hosted a political convention. The inside bet was that, because it was located in an important swing state and had been passed over twice in the past decade, this had to be Tampa’s year.
But Jones isn’t buying that.
“Nobody said, ‘Oh well, come on. They’re not going to give it to Phoenix or Utah,’” he told CL in a recent conversation. “Maybe there were some people who thought that, but I certainly never felt that way. I always felt that you have to put in 110 percent, and you better put your best foot forward, you better knock the cover off the ball, because if you don’t, somebody else is nipping at your heels. We gave it our all, all the way through.”
At the forefront in all three bids was 83-year-old Al Austin, the Tampa real estate developer whose official title for the convention is committee fundraising chair. He and Jones have had the challenge of raising some $55 million in private funds to stage the four-day event.
It hasn’t been easy.
“We started early, and people weren’t motivated, and people weren’t interested,” he said. Donors who might have been willing to give money to a political campaign couldn’t get too excited about an event two years in the future.
Ken Jones has been steadfast in his refusal to disclose to the media how fundraising is going, other than to say that the committee is on pace to have the funds available when the convention begins.
Organizing the event hasn’t been a completely smooth ride, either. Tampa won the bid while Michael Steele was running the Republican National Committee. That’s the same Michael Steele now seen doing prolific pundit duty on MSNBC.
Steele was the party chair when Tampa was awarded the convention, but he lost his bid for a second two-year term to Reince Priebus in January of 2011, shortly after charges of lackluster fundraising and financial mismanagement surfaced, directly related to the Tampa convention. When Priebus took over, he fired everyone considered allies of Steele on the Committee on Arrangements, a division of the Republican National Committee charged with putting together the convention.
Since the beginning of this year, the Tampa Bay business establishment and Mayor Bob Buckhorn, along with Jones and the host committee, have sold the RNC as not just an economic boon, but also as something transcendent, a week-long commercial that will sell the Tampa Bay area to the business world in a way it’s never been put on display.
“I think when we look back 10 years, 20 years from now, they will say this is where Tampa turned the corner, we had our introduction to the world stage and we danced like we never danced before,” Buckhorn said recently at a business forum. “The long-term impact will not be just the $150 million in economic impact that will occur this week, it will be the residual effect of this community living up to its expectations and its potential.”
Al Austin extols the virtues of Florida as they will appear to hypothetical CEOs. “They know about Orlando and Miami,” he says, “but they don’t bother coming here, they don’t have a reason to.”
To that end the Tampa Bay Host Committee is teaming up with Bloomberg LP to host a series of panel discussions with leading CEOs throughout convention week that are designed to show off the area. Ken Jones says, “We want people to understand why Florida is such a great place to do business.” The Chamber of Commerce bullet points come rolling out: “Low cost of living, no state income tax, good weather, great beaches…”
The Tampa Bay Partnership is helping to produce a four-hour daily webcast called Front Row Tampa Bay. Earlier this summer members of the media and business officials/ potential investors gathered for an early-morning mock taping of a broadcast at Stageworks Theatre in Channelside. Progress Energy’s Vinny Dolan told the assembled crowd, “We have a unique opportunity coming this August to promote the prosperity of the region and do the things that are necessary for economic development.” That effort is expected to cost $600,000. In a similar vein, the Host Committee is sponsoring a summit for CEOs called “Why Florida, Why Now.”