TAMPA — It has been no secret that Hillsborough and Pinellas economic development officials have been working together more and more to try to revive the Tampa Bay economy.
On Friday, they made it official: They're an item.
Hillsborough and Pinellas officials announced they've formed the Tampa Bay Export Alliance to lead international trade missions.
Recent missions to Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Panama and Switzerland included Pinellas County businesses and organizations but were organized and dominated by key economic and political players from Hillsborough County.
The new alliance was announced at the 2014 International Town Hall by the bay area's top economic development officials: Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. CEO Rick Homans and Pinellas County Economic Development director Mike Meidel.
"It's kind of like a new bromance between Mike Meidel and myself," Homans said.
"We're working on so many things together. But exports, the international strategy, we felt there was every opportunity for us to do it better if we do it together."
Selling more goods and services internationally would be a huge boon to the economy, officials said, because the bay area exports so little as it is.
According to the Tampa Bay Partnership, in 2012, exports accounted for only 8 percent of the bay area's GRP (gross regional product) for the eight-county region surrounding Hillsborough and Pinellas. The bay area ranked 88th among the 100 U.S. metro areas in terms of how much exports contributed to total GRP.
The national average is 12 percent of exports contributing to GRP. If the bay area were to reach that level of exports, it could inject up to $8 billion into the Tampa Bay economy and potentially create up to 40,000 jobs.
"That's ridiculous," Meidel said of the low export metrics.
"If we just get up to average, that's another 40,000 jobs for Tampa Bay."
International trade and travel has become a big theme for Tampa Bay business and political leaders. In recent years, the bay area has established direct flights to Cuba, Switzerland and Panama, increased Latin American tourism and most recently hosted the Bollywood Oscars, the 15th annual International Indian Film Academy's Weekend & Awards.
Trade missions have become a big part of that international push. Homans and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn have led past ones. But Pinellas political leaders, such as former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, never took part. The new mayor, Rick Kriseman, however, said St. Petersburg will take a much more active role in local economic development missions.
A big part of those trade missions has been helping local firms meet their international counterparts. It was a kind of "speed dating" to develop business relationships that could lead to business deals. That's what Tampa Bay will be doing when it takes part in a state trade mission to Panama in October, undertakes its first joint Hillsborough-Pinellas trade mission to Chile in December and then prepares to send a delegation to Canada in 2015.
When it comes to economic development, Miedel said the old Hillsborough-Pinellas rivalry didn't make sense.
"Particularly when it comes to export development," he said, "there's not a lot of competition because what we're doing is helping each of our own companies grow their sales."
Said Homans: "If we look at ourselves as competitors, we lose. If we look at ourselves as colleagues and partners, we win. Two plus two, in this case, equals five."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter at @jthalji.