As top regional leaders gather, a timely appeal to become less parochial

The Tampa Bay Partnership, the economic development group representing eight very different area counties, bears the tricky task of knitting together their not-so-common interests.

Which leads to the sticky question for the greater Tampa Bay area: How are we doing as a regional economy in increasingly competitive and ever-leaner times?

The greater Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area remains a loosely united, at times Balkanized sprawl that finds itself competing more often against a host of single-name-branded, politically focused metro areas pushing strong economic agendas. Think Austin, Texas, North Carolina's Research Triangle and even Orlando, among many others.

Regionally, we've made strides. But let's face it. Our history of "none for all, all for none" is fading but remains a stumbling block on some big issues.

It was brought into sharp reality in Friday's simple luncheon comment by Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard:

"We do need to drop some of our parochial habits," Hibbard told nearly 500 business and civic leaders at the Partnership's annual luncheon at the Hilton in downtown St. Petersburg.

Give the mayor a cigar. Preferably one hand rolled regionally in Ybor City.

Stuart Rogel argues that the ability for a metropolitan area like Tampa Bay to operate as one united region is ever more important.

"We are making progress," says Rogel, 57, who has led the Tampa Bay Partnership since 1994. "It's always two steps forward and one step back. It's a constant process understanding what it means to have the patience to work together and collaborate. So I think we have seen some successes."

But have we seen enough success?

On the mass-transit front, the Tampa Bay area sadly distinguished itself as the nation's largest metro area with the most patchwork and dated mass-transit system. That won't sell well when recruiting businesses.

The Tampa Bay Partnership tried, with former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio's full support, to rally Hillsborough County behind a mass-transit upgrade that included light rail, better bus service and enhanced roads. Amid voters' antitax fever and a shocked economy, that referendum failed to pass last fall. The blow was compounded by Florida Gov. Rick Scott's decision this year's to kill a proposed high-speed rail line linking Tampa to Orlando, the first leg of a rail system connecting Miami and other cities.

Rogel insists regional lessons have been learned from the transit debacle. He says a less ambitious mass-transit effort may materialize by 2013 or 2014, probably based on better bus service. Light rail seems doubtful.

Let's turn to our regional pro sports dilemma. The Tampa Bay Rays make it pretty clear that they favor a new stadium and probably a different location closer to faster-growing parts of the metro area. St. Petersburg remains adamant that the Rays must honor a long-term contract, even as Tampa flirts with the Rays while trying not to overly annoy St. Pete.

The key issue, other than local civic pride, is money. St. Petersburg and Pinellas County put up the bucks for Tropicana Field, just as Tampa and Hillsborough County paid for most of Raymond James Stadium.

Wake up, folks. If we continue to depend on that outdated method of financing, we won't be able afford future stadiums, or any big projects for that matter. That's why some leaders want a Tampa Bay-wide sports authority to handle the financing of any future sports stadium.

The good news, according to both the Tampa and St. Petersburg chambers of commerce, is that a regional sports authority is already being explored. A "Tampa Bay" sports authority could raise tax dollars across the entire metro area.

Regionwide authority to pay for large-scale projects — be they transportation, infrastructure, environment, cultural or, yes, sports venues — is hardly radical. All it really does is put the Tampa Bay area on par with places like Orlando, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and — gee, let's see — hundreds of other growing metro areas trying to become players in the 21st century.

That's one good reason among many that this newspaper will be known as the Tampa Bay Times come January. We think it's time to have a regional brand name that better reflects the wider metro area we now serve.

So how are we doing as a regional economy? I'd give this metro area a C+. Maybe a B-. There's plenty of room for improvement ahead.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

.fast facts

Tampa Bay Partnership: Do more with less

You would not know it from the Tampa Bay Partnership's sold-out annual luncheon Friday, but the eight-county regional development organization only recently began to recover from some major blows to its membership and resources from the regional economic downturn of recent years.

Partnership membership was down about 30 percent from its peak before this recession, says partnership CEO Stuart Rogel. This is the first year in the past four when new membership has matched attrition.

"We're always recruiting, but those not renewing had been greater during this recession," he says. The group's renewed focus ahead will be on jobs.

The good news is the partnership learned, like many businesses around here, to do more with less staff and smaller budgets. Now membership and dues are growing, a sign, Rogel hopes, that the economy has indeed turned for the better.

Robert Trigaux, Times business columnist

As top regional leaders gather, a timely appeal to become less parochial 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 3:32am]

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