Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Business

17 for ‘17: Top Tampa Bay business stories of the year

Top 10 lists are so passé.

Certainly after an action-packed year marked by driverless cars, Uber taxis of the sky, and apps to let Amazon inside your house to drop off your groceries when you’re gone. Not to mention a newfound awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, a burgeoning investigation into Russia meddling in U.S. politics and that darn North Korea.

Tampa Bay’s business news front has been no less busy.

So in that spirit, we suggest 17 notable local business stories for ‘17:

1. Who turned out the lights?

Hurricane Irma exposed major weaknesses in the state’s power grid — with some utilities faring worse than others. Tens of thousands of Duke Energy customers fumed after the utility missed its self-imposed deadline to restore power for those stuck in the dark for nearly a week.

More than 520,000 customers lost electricity in Irma across Pinellas and Pasco, two of the hardest hit counties in Duke’s service area. A Tampa Bay Times review of state filings found the company cut its tree-trimming budget in the area by more than $2 million last year, from $9.9 million to $7.4 million.

Irma triggered the biggest mass evacuation in state history but, in the end, had a minimal impact in the state’s once-ridiculed property insurance market. After building up strong reserves in the non-hurricane years, state-run Citizens Property Insurance and the mix of little-known, Florida-based small insurers that now blanket the market held up.

BACK STORY: In Florida, 2.1 million customers still powerless four days after Hurricane Irma

2. Three words: Water Street Tampa

It was a year when the Jeff Vinik-Cascade Investment vision finally got a name — Water Street Tampa — and started to come out of the ground. Much of the construction consisted of rebuilding the road network, but the University of South Florida did begin construction on a $153 million building for the Morsani College of Medicine and USF Health Heart Institute.

Beyond that, Vinik and Cascade released more details and increasingly specific renderings that fleshed out just how dramatically they want to transform the southern fringe of downtown Tampa: with a new 500-room hotel run by JW Marriott, with twin residential towers rising from a retail base that includes a grocery story, and with a new home for the Museum of Science and Industry built snugly next to Amalie Arena.

And Vinik continued to show that his interests extend beyond real estate to community building. He unveiled plans for a startup-focused venture capital fund of up to $50 million, hired a young executive from Chicago to run an innovation hub he wants to create, helped to bail out MOSI and talked up an in-the-works expansion of the TECO Line Streetcar.

BACK STORY: A new look at the vision for Water Street Tampa

3. Tampa shines for College Football Playoff championship

Tampa has a weird affinity to offer itself as the backdrop or soundstage for someone else’s big party — the Super Bowl, the Republican National Convention, the Bollywood Oscars.

Rarely, however, have the pieces come together quite as neatly as they did for the College Football Playoff national championship game on Jan. 9. Apart from some pre-game traffic jams near Raymond James Stadium, reviews were good, especially for the still-new Riverwalk and the way it tied together a lot of downtown Tampa concerts, parties and game-related events. "Once you parked, you had easy access," said one Clemson fan, and there was "almost too much" to choose from when it came to things to do. "You had to pick."

BACK STORY: What is hosting the college football championship worth to Tampa Bay’s economy?

4. Duke goes solar, ends nuke fees

Shunning its old policies, Duke Energy made an unprecedented push into solar energy in a broad settlement that also phased out its much-maligned practice for charging customers for a nuclear power plant that is not being built.

Under the settlement it filed with regulators in August, Duke’s 1.8 million customers would be off the hook from paying off the remaining $150 million for the Levy County nuclear project. That could trim $2.50 off the average monthly bill. But there will be no reimbursement for the roughly $800 million that ratepayers have already paid toward the project that was abandoned four years ago — before it even got off the ground.

The settlement also marked a major policy shift as Duke effectively gave up its long-held belief that nuclear power is a key component to its Florida future and, instead promised to add 700 megawatts of solar power over the next four years.

BACK STORY: Duke Energy strikes deal to lower customer bills, boost solar

5. HSN joins QVC family amid leadership change

St. Petersburg-based HSN — the digital and TV retailer best known as the modern-day version of the iconic Home Shopping Network — got a new owner.

Liberty Interactive Corp., the Englewood, Colo.-based parent company of QVC, unveiled the $2.1 billion acquisition in July. A few months later, the trio of local leaders at HSN’s home office in St. Pete were already being ushered out the door as QVC detailed a planned restructuring once the deal closes.

As a harbinger of the shake-up that was about to occur: A couple months before the sale was announced, Mindy Grossman, HSN’s CEO for 11 years, left to become CEO of Weight Watchers International.

BACK STORY: HSN acquired by rival retail giant QVC for $2.1 billion

6. Tampa Electric’s accident, new leadership

On June 29, six workers — one Tampa Electric employee and five contractors — were tasked with removing a build-up of hardened slag at the bottom of a tank at the Big Bend Power Station in Tampa. About 20 minutes into the job, a plug meant to contain slag overhead burst and molten slag poured through the hole. It rushed out, covering the workers. Two workers died on the scene. Three died in the hospital. Only one survived.

In the wake of the accident, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that more workers have died in Tampa Electric’s power plants over the last two decades than in any other Florida utility’s. And Tampa Electric’s president at the time, Gordon Gillette, promised that the company would not do the kind of work that led to the fatal accident before investigations into the accident had finished. But a few weeks later the company did it again anyway.

In November, Gillette stepped down and Emera Inc., Tampa Electric’s new Canadian parent, brought in Nancy Tower to become CEO — the first "outside" leader of Tampa/Hillsborough County’s longtime biggest electric utility.

And last week, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Tampa Electric and a contractor on the job, Gaffin Industrial Services of Riverview, more than $160,000 for multiple violations of federal safety standards, one of them deemed "willful," OSHA’s most serious category of infraction.

BACK STORY: Hellfire from above

7. Potential death blow for Florida oranges

Citrus production in Florida has been plummeting for years, ravaged by citrus greening, foreign competition and encroaching development among other foes. Then came Hurricane Irma. The state’s Department of Citrus placed the damage from the September storm between significant and catastrophic. Early estimates pegged damage to Florida’s orange trees as high as 70 percent. The prospect for orange shortages, price hikes and lost harvests triggered a plea to the federal government for aid.

BACK STORY: Did Hurricane Irma speed the end of Florida orange juice?

8. Local group forms to invest in Tampa Bay Times

Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times and the Times Publishing Co., announced in June that an investor group called FBN Partners took out a mortgage on the buildings and 27 acres at the newspaper’s printing facilities in central St. Petersburg.

Some members of the group agreed to be identified, but others wished to remain anonymous. Among the investors who were named in June or later confirmed their involvement are Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, entrepreneur Dr. Kiran Patel, philanthropists Frank and Carol Morsani; developer Ted Couch; and investor Robert Rothman, part owner of the Washington Redskins; and Tash and his wife, Karyn. The group named itself after the Times’ slogan "Florida’s Best Newspaper." The loan did not give investors a share of the newspaper itself nor a say in its news coverage and editorial opinions.

BACK STORY: Tampa Bay Times completes refinancing with help from local investors

9. A Bloomin’ challenge

Citing frustration over the lagging performance of Bloomin’ Brands, a major investor pushed for a possible sale of the Tampa restaurant chain that includes Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill in its stable. Barry Rosenstein, principal owner of New York hedge fund Jana Partners, said in a securities filing in November that he may urge Bloomin’ to explore a sale. To back up his activist campaign, Jana has spent nearly $140 million on Bloomin’ Brands shares, amassing an 8.74 percent stake in the company. Jana describes itself as a firm that invests in "companies undergoing or expected to undergo change."

Shares in Bloomin’ have rebounded strongly from a low in early November, but still remain shy of the levels the restaurant chain saw a couple years ago.

BACK STORY: Up for sale? Activist investor grabs stake in Tampa’s Bloomin’ Brands

10. Ybor City site emerges as Hillsborough pick for Rays ballpark

A new player emerged in the quest to find and build a ballpark that will cement the Tampa Bay Rays to the bay area for decades to come, and he came from the world of… veterinary medicine.

BluePearl Veterinary Services CEO Darryl Shaw has invested an estimated $63 million in Ybor City real estate with a vision mostly for residential and commercial development. But he also has worked with other landowners to assemble a potential 14-acre ballpark site bordered by Adamo Drive, 15th Street, Fourth Avenue and Channelside Drive. In October, Hillsborough officials said that was their preferred site.

If the team takes Hillsborough’s offer, a harder task awaits: Paying for a project that could cost $600 million, and persuading the public that some of its money should be put in the mix.

BACK STORY: Darryl Shaw is quiet, humble - and $63 million later, Ybor’s big new player

11. Patels commit $200 million to create Nova Southeastern campus

In September, Dr. Kiran Patel and his wife, Dr. Pallavi Patel, pledged $200 million — $50 million in cash and $150 million toward real estate the Patels will control — to help establish and promote a regional campus for the private nonprofit Nova Southeastern University, based in Fort Lauderdale. The cash donation will go toward osteopathic medicine and health sciences education.

"It is our blessing that we could do this, both because we have the financial capacity and means, but also finding a partner like this," Kiran Patel said. The new campus will be at the former site of Clearwater Christian College at the western end of the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

Patel, a well-known cardiologist, made the bulk of his fortune 15 years ago when he sold his HMO, WellCare Health Plans, for a reported $200 million. In October, he sold his Tampa-based managed health care services company Freedom Health to industry giant Anthem Inc. and said he plans to focus on philanthropy.

BACK STORY: Kiran and Pallavi Patel commit $200 million for Clearwater medical school

12. Arthur Rutenberg dies

By the time he died at the age of 89 in March, few people had done as much to shape the experience of living in the Tampa Bay area as Arthur Rutenberg.

The co-founder of a company that merged with and grew U.S. Home into a national industry leader, Rutenberg got his start in the 1950s after his brother Charlie visited their father in Florida and bought 10 lots for $1,000 each in the Skycrest area near Clearwater High School. Once appliance salesmen, the brothers moved into home building.

Later recognized as the dean of Florida home design, Art Rutenberg is credited with introducing the split-bedroom floor plan, widening hallways and doors and positioning the kitchen in the heart of the house to afford views of the pool and lanai. Rutenberg companies built tens of thousands of those homes in Florida and other states. Considering all he accomplished, it was no surprise that Rutenberg was at his desk at the office until a few hours before his death.

BACK STORY: Homebuilder legend Arthur Rutenberg dead at 89

13. Tourism booms despite huge hurdles

Hurricanes; a political tussle and pullback in funding to promote tourism; fear over mass shootings and terrorism — nothing, it seemed, could derail Florida’s tourism machine as it broke record after record for drawing visitors to the Sunshine State.

The state’s tourism agency, Visit Florida, has repeatedly been under scrutiny by state lawmakers. Most recently, the Florida House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee said it would subpoena records from C. Patrick Roberts, who had contracts with the agency.

Undaunted, Visit Florida has pushed post-Irma marketing and says it’s aiming to bring a record 120 million tourists to the state in 2017.

BACK STORY:Tampa Bay hotels, beaches try to lure tourists back after Hurricane Irma

14. Uber wins as driverless vehicles advance

The Legislature’s decision to abolish the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission by the end of this year de-escalated a years-long struggle involving Uber, local taxi companies and the PTC. In the summer, Tampa International Airport’s governing board voted to allow Uber and Lyft to pick up passengers legally at the airport, in exchange for paying a fee of $3 per ride.

Meanwhile, autonomous vehicles loomed on the horizon, promising to be every bit as transformative — and disruptive — as ride-sharing. In November, local officials said the P-1 electric vehicle, with seats for 14 but no driver aboard, would make its debut in January on Marion Street. And in December, Tampa state Sen. Dana Young and Rep. Jamie Grant proposed shifting some state transportation funds away from rail toward innovative alternatives like driverless cars and rapid buses.

BACK STORY: Canned by lawmakers, PTC staffers say they are now forgotten

15. Clearwater says no thanks to Scientology

The Church of Scientology is the largest landowner in downtown Clearwater and pressed for an even bigger stake in the city, but city officials pushed back. Scientologists wanted a 1.4-acre waterfront lot on Pierce Street in April, offering its owner, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, $15 million. Instead, the aquarium sold the lot to the city for $4.25 million. In November, Clearwater voters passed a referendum allowing construction along the city’s waterfront. Having the Pierce Street lot in public ownership could help the city shape the redevelopment of downtown Clearwater’s waterfront, an under-utilized asset, for decades to come.

BACK STORY: Clearwater City Council votes 5-0 to buy downtown parcel coveted by the Church of Scientology

16. Strong real estate market, construction booms, labor tight

Florida’s real estate market maintained its upward trajectory from its nadir during the Great Recession nearly a decade ago.

As 2017 came to a close, the year-over-year, double-digit home price gains that homeowners had gotten used to started waning with some areas settling for single-digit gains. Those steady gains, however, have had ripple effects: inventory has gotten tighter and many, would-be home buyers reported difficulty finding affordable housing. Not surprisingly, the tight inventory helped keep the rental market strong, encouraging even higher rents.

Meanwhile, the construction industry warned of worker shortages with major commercial developments underway on both sides of the bay.

BACK STORY: How will Tampa Bay home prices, sales fare in 2018?

17. New boss of Busch Gardens

In January, Stewart Clark moved from the vice president’s job at Discovery Cove in Orlando to become president of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Adventure Island. He succeeded Jim Dean, who left Busch Gardens to become park president of SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove in Orlando.

Busch Gardens’ parent company, SeaWorld Entertainment, has seen attendance at its Florida parks drop, but Clark says new rides and attractions like the Cobra’s Curse roller coaster and a pair of drop slides called Vanish Point, coming to Adventure Island in March, help the Tampa park’s numbers.

Under Clark’s leadership, Busch Gardens also has worked with neighbors — the University of South Florida, Moffitt Cancer Center, Florida Hospital Tampa and University Mall — to promote coordinated economic development in northern Tampa.

BACK STORY: Busch Gardens new president faces headwinds in amusement park industry

     
                       
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