Tampa chamber of commerce evolves to take on more policy challenges

Steven Bernstein, left, the incoming chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, and outgoing chairman Mike Griffin, right, discuss issues and goals the chamber is likely to focus on in 2018. RICHARD DANIELSON   |   Times
Steven Bernstein, left, the incoming chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, and outgoing chairman Mike Griffin, right, discuss issues and goals the chamber is likely to focus on in 2018. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times
Published December 14 2017
Updated December 14 2017

TAMPA — A couple of the ways the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has changed — evolved, really — will be on view today at the organization’s 132nd annual meeting at the Tampa Convention Center.

But first, recall what the chamber used to be.

"A coffee club," says Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

It focused largely on networking.

It also was a captive of an old Tampa power structure in which many decisions were controlled by the patriarchs of a few home-grown companies, including Lykes Bros., TECO Energy (today Tampa Electric) and the Tampa Tribune.

That has been changing for a while, and the process picked up speed in the past decade.

In December 2009, the chamber spun off a recruiting arm for new business that had been known as the Committee of One Hundred into a new independent, nonprofit known as the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.

"The public dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, went with that," chamber president and CEO Bob Rohrlack says.

It was liberating. Not having to worry about angering elected officials who had previously controlled a big part of the chamber’s budget "enabled us to find our policy voice," Rohrlack says.

In the years since, the chamber has spoken up more often, including, this year, publicly opposing a property tax increase proposed by a reliably pro-business mayor.

"I didn’t happen to agree with their position," Buckhorn says, "but their role is to advocate for a healthy business climate here, and that includes social issues that affect the business climate and perceptions of Tampa as a place to do business. They’re absolutely headed down the right course."

The chamber saw another change 9½ years ago in the arrival of an attorney named Steven Bernstein.

Today, less than a decade after moving to town, Bernstein, who likely would have still been regarded as an outsider by Tampa’s old standards, takes the role as chairman of the chamber from Mike Griffin, a real estate executive who, now 37, was the chamber’s youngest chairman ever.

Ahead of today’s meeting, the Tampa Bay Times sat down with Bernstein, Griffin, Rohrlack and chamber senior vice president for strategy Joshua Baumgartner to discuss the organization, its future and what is calls its three pillars (being a hub for business, being a catalyst for change and making Tampa more inclusive).

Here is that discussion, edited for length and clarity:

Q — How is the chamber a different organization now than when you got involved in your early 20s?

MIKE GRIFFIN: When you look at a lot of the issues that we took on this year, a lot of them were unexpected, but our organization, through our Vision 2026 plan, created readiness and really ensured the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce would serve as a catalyst for positive change in our community. …

We’re definitely an organization now that is very thoughtful that doesn’t rush to judgment, but we’re built now much better to lead when needed, and sometimes leadership needs to to happen immediately and you don’t have a long on-ramp to be able to do that.

Q — What are a couple of issues that the chamber addressed on the fly this past year?

MIKE GRIFFIN: One of them was the Confederate monument. If you recall, the County Commission decided to pass the buck on this issue not only to the community, but really called out the business community.

We decided to step up and do the job that the County Commission was not doing. So within about 90 minutes, we raised $70,000. That was part of Bob Gries and his efforts and others.

I’ll be honest: It was a very emotional moment. You just felt this positive movement happening. A few years ago we probably weren’t ready to take on that kind of issue. But not only were we ready, we were successful in doing so.

The other issue was USF pre-eminence. Late Friday (on May 5), there was a change to the Senate’s implementing bill that shifted money away from USF and into the hands of two other state universities. We were finding out about this before many of our elected officials were finding out about it.

So between Friday evening and Monday morning we, working with our partners at USF, mobilized north of 30,000 messages to our elected officials saying this is unacceptable. … It all worked out. I think it’s given pause to those who think they can do things without the chamber of commerce paying attention. Those days are gone.

Q — Next year, what issues will the chamber focus on?

STEVE BERNSTEIN: We’ve got 1,400 or so business members in this chamber. The vast majority of them I think you would describe as small businesses. Those small businesses need a voice.

Transportation is going to continue to come up. I think it’s the consensus of our members that the system is not acceptable as it is. … This is a great time to be living in Tampa Bay. But the issues when you live in a region our size get increasingly complex as you look forward at 30,000 people a year moving into our community.

Going forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if we tackled broader issues like workforce development, affordable housing, things that I think a lot of chambers are very slow to deal with, our K through 12 education system.

We do a very good job here, but the challenges are going to become greater as our region expands and our influence expands. I’ve used the word region a couple of times. As a chamber, I think you’ll also see us look toward stakeholders and partners on this side and on the other side of the bay to see where we can find some areas of common ground.

Q — The chamber has worked on transportation for a lot of years. Is the organization’s approach changing in terms of which piece of the transportation challenge you want to tackle?

STEVE BERNSTEIN: I think most folks who have studied it very carefully have concluded that it’s not going to be any one solution. It’s going to be a combination of options. One option is a more robust streetcar right here in the urban core. I’m among a number of people who would like to see us take a hard look at that, see if it can be expanded in a thoughtful, reasonable and fiscally responsible way. That would be one example of taking a bite-sized piece of that issue and really getting our hands around it.

If you look back on recent positions we took … the (Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority) has a wonderful track record in my view when it comes to resolving transportation challenges. While we recognized that (the Selmon connector to the Gandy Bridge) had the potential to temporarily challenge some businesses on the Gandy corridor, we embraced that.

It’s another example that, No. 1, it’s not going to be any one solution. But No. 2, there’s going to be opportunities from time to time to tackle projects that tie us to Pinellas, and the Selmon connector is one of them, because of course on the other side of that is the Gateway project.

Q — The Tampa Bay Rays have made it clear that no matter where they play, they need to have a bigger corporate ticket base. If they choose Tampa, what is the chamber in a position to do to help them sell those tickets?

MIKE GRIFFIN: Five or six years ago, (former chamber chairman) Chuck Sykes chaired a caucus here in the chamber that really looked at financing for stadium construction. So this is definitely an issue that we’ve had on our radar for some time.

BOB ROHRLACK: And we invited the St. Pete chamber to join us on that, and they worked with us.

MIKE GRIFFIN: I think we can all agree that we need to do everything we can to keep the team in the region. I personally don’t have a preference where they go within the region. We just need to keep them here. If the consensus is that the stadium should be in Tampa at the site that’s been reported then I think you’re going to see, not necessarily just the chamber, but the business community really show its support more so than it has been the past. We’ve done some surveys of our members and they show that there is support there.

BOB ROHRLACK: Two of our pillars — be a catalyst, be a hub for business — I think (apply) both for transportation and something like baseball.

We used to take the philosophy of let’s figure out the exact transportation route and advocate that. We’re not transportation planners. We are articulating more now what do we want the solution to do. How do we want it to improve commute times? How do we want to make it easier for people to get to work and to school and manage their lives?

Same kind of thing with baseball. We’re not experts on how to sell tickets. But we do not want the team to leave Tampa Bay. How do we serve an advisory role working with them to connect to the business community and therefore connect to the rest of the community to keep the team here and to make the numbers work for them from a business perspective? We can’t be a ticket office. … I think it’s a more impactful strategy to say, "Okay what is your business plan? Here’s where we can help you. We can’t help you there so let’s not go down that road."

Q — What is the chamber’s view of the congressional tax bill?

MIKE GRIFFIN: There are elements of this as we’re learning more about it that can have very adverse impacts to our members, particularly around the financing of public projects. We have members both public and semi private/semi public that rely on these bonding options. I think that to the airport alone it could be more than a $200 million impact. That is real. … I don’t think we’re prepared to take a position completely one way or other but we are advocating for parts of it that we want to see changed, and that’s one of them.

Q — You mentioned K-12 education. Do you anticipate that the chamber will enter the discussion on whether Hillsborough County schools are adequately financed and efficiently run?

STEVE BERNSTEIN: I think you can expect us to be a little more direct in terms of urging appropriate funding and being sure it gets spent in the right direction. …For us to succeed as a region and as a city, we’ve got to ensure quality education for all of our residents from K to 12. … If our kids from one side of the county to the other can’t depend on consistency, then ultimately what are their prospects for forming their own businesses for growing wages here in town?

BOB ROHRLACK: We’re working with Jeff Eakins on what is the most appropriate and best impactful way for the business community to engage on getting the outcomes that are important to what you want to see. Jeff is an ex officio member of our board, works with us on a lot of different things. We’re always in communication with him and his team on what can we do. … It’s more of a discussion of, "Okay I get that’s an issue. What can we do to change that?" Let’s make sure that we’re not meeting to meet, we’re meeting for results.

Q — In coming months, the candidates running for mayor of Tampa in 2019 will begin campaigning. What does the chamber hope those people are thinking about now?

MIKE GRIFFIN: We want a mayor, he or she, to wake up every day thinking about not only how to improve the business climate but the quality of life for all Tampa.

Every year we go to a different city (on a benchmarking trip). We went to Austin this year. Austin has seen some amazing success, but when they bring in these new jobs, these amazing employers, Facebook and others, no one can afford to live in downtown Austin. So you have these workers that are coming 30, 45 minutes from outside to get to work without a reliable transportation network.

It was very eye-opening for us to see that as much as we want to be like an Austin or communities like that, there are parts that I don’t want to be like.

STEVE BERNSTEIN: One thing (Buckhorn) probably does not get enough credit for is fostering a relationship with his counterpart on the other side of the bay. While our first priority is to our constituents in greater Tampa, I hope that his successor puts the same priority on relations across the bay, because I’m not sure that they’ve ever been better. I don’t ever want to be in a situation where we can be marginalized — whether it’s (in) Tallahassee, (Washington) DC or anyone else — by the cliched notion that we can’t agree on the weather.

Q TO MIKE GRIFFIN — What advice do you have for the next chairman?

MIKE GRIFFIN: There’s a reason why a guy who’s been here 9½ years is going to chair an organization that’s been around for 130-plus years. I think just be true to yourself, keep being Steve Bernstein, and this organization is going to be in much better hands next year than with me. He’s truly going to raise the bar. It is pretty amazing: Someone who’s young and one of the youngest chairs ever and then someone who’s been here not a very long period of time. That’s the kind of organization that we are, and that’s why we love being a part of it.