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Politics

Tampa developer, GOP heavyweight Al Austin dies

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Published:   |   Updated: May 22, 2014 at 06:56 PM

­­— Al Austin, Tampa developer, philanthropist and heavyweight Republican fundraiser, died Wednesday night at 85.

Austin died in his sleep of a heart attack, according to friends and his assistant, Bobbi Villar, who said he had seemed healthy as recently as Wednesday.

The driving force behind bringing the 2012 Republican National Convention to Tampa, Austin was best known for Republican political activity, including work as the state party finance chairman and Tampa’s leading fundraiser for Republican candidates.

But he was also a major force in charitable and civic causes and pioneered development of the Westshore area, which during his career changed from a nearly undeveloped area to what is now the state’s largest commercial office market.

Among the marks Austin left on Tampa:

♦ He was a leader in expansion of the University of Tampa, his alma mater, where he headed an eight-year, $84 million capital campaign to launch the dramatic growth of the school campus that continues today.

♦ He and his wife Beverly were instrumental in founding Tampa Preparatory School in 1974 and helped keep the school alive in its difficult early years.

♦ He led local efforts to preserve MacDill Air Force Base during three bouts of federal military base-closings.

♦ The Austins helped guide support for the local Red Cross and he was a former president of the local Easter Seal Society and Heart Association.

♦ Austin was chairman of the Tampa Airport Authority and served 12 years as a member, ending in 2011. He was the only person to serve three terms.

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“It’s a big loss. The city’s going to miss him,” said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who worked with Austin on the convention and MacDill, during a news conference Thursday to talk about Austin’s career. Austin, he said, was “a real estate pioneer who shaped the physical landscape of Tampa.”

Austin is survived by his wife, Beverly, a partner in many of his political and civic activities; by two daughters, Amy Guagliardo of Tampa and Ann Tatomir of California; and by Amy and son-in-law Nelson Guagiardo’s two children.

Nelson Guagliardo said Thursday funeral arrangements hadn’t been completed, but that services will be held next week.

Guagliardo said Austin was born in Springfield, Mass., in 1929 and moved with his family first to Miami and then to Tampa in his teens.

The family initially had a farm, but when Al Austin was a young adult, he and his father bought some lots in what was then the new Davis Islands development and built speculative homes, launching Austin’s career as a developer.

His involvement in Westshore began with his purchase of 11.5 acres of land in the area, “mostly palmettos,” said Ron Rotella, head of the Westshore Alliance, a business development group Austin helped found.

At the time, Rotella noted, Drew Field was where Tampa International Airport now stands and Interstate 275 had just been completed. Austin started by building a couple of office buildings, then a movie theater, then a hotel.

“He had the vision that an area up against the airport and the interstate would be at the very center of our region,” said Rotella. “He was truly the pioneer in Westshore.”

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University of Tampa President Ronald Vaughn said Austin attended the school in the class of 1947, but didn’t graduate. Eventually, however, the school gave him “every recognition we award,” including an honorary doctorate, for his service.

The 1997-2005 capital campaign, which included a large donation from businessman John Sykes, led to construction of the Sykes College of Business, dormitories and other buildings, and sparked the school’s continuing construction boom.

“He was a key leader at a critical time in our history,” Vaughn said. “He helped other donors appreciate what could happen at UT. They began to see our vision could be achieved. He was a great man for the community and a giant for the University of Tampa.”

Austin’s ties to UT led to the formation of Tampa Prep, when Austin’s older daughter, Ann, was about to enter the ninth grade, as was a daughter of then-UT President Bob Owens. They and other parents “were looking to start a high-quality, independent prep school that was not faith-based,” said Tampa Prep Head of School Kevin Plummer.

Austin signed the note for the money to start the school on the UT campus and became a founding trustee, while Beverly was the first head of the school’s parents association, said middle school Director Joe Fenlon. The couple helped pay teacher’s salaries during its difficult early years.

Austin was also a pioneer in the local Republican Party, said former Tampa mayor and Florida Gov. Bob Martinez.

“He was a believer when there were hardly any Republicans in town,” said Martinez. In 1975, when Martinez was starting began his political career, “he was one of very few Republicans I knew.”

Martinez said Austin helped persuade him and other Democrats to switch parties.

“I’ve got a big empty hole inside today,” said Martinez, a neighbor, tennis partner and politically ally of Austin since that time.

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Austin drew criticism in 2009 for forwarding an email that referred to the killing of President Barack Obama. He apologized, saying he didn’t carefully read it.

Soon afterward, he was widely credited with bringing the Republican National Convention to Tampa in 2012 after trying for three election cycles — and being unfairly denied, he and others contended, when the party chose Minneapolis-St. Paul instead for the 2008 convention.

He considered the convention the crowning achievement of his political career.

Since Tampa landed the convention, with Austin as chairman of its non-partisan Host Committee, he has withdrawn some from party politics.

With the host committee’s business on the verge of closing out, Martinez said, Austin “was looking to the future and wanted to get back into it,” particularly on behalf of Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott called Austin “one of the most influential Floridians to ever call Tampa Bay home.” He said he and his wife Ann “join all Floridians as we mourn Al.”

In a political twist, Scott’s likely Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, who’s a former Republican, also was once a political protege of Austin, and appointed Austin to his final term on the airport authority. Austin served as finance chairman for Crist’s quixotic 1998 challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

“Al was my friend and a true leader in our community. I am grateful for the guidance he provided to me over my career, and Carole (Crist) and I are saddened by his passing,” Crist said.

wmarch@tampatrib.com

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