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Business leaders from Tampa and Orlando take first step toward economic partnership

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN TAMPA AND ORLANDO — Some 400 business and civic leaders gathered to join Thursday's curious courtship between the economic development worlds of Tampa Bay and Orlando. The first date ended successfully with hugs, kisses and promises to call each other the next day.

But will they?

In what many called a historic event, the Tampa Bay Partnership and Central Florida Partnership — regional economic development groups representing their respective metro areas — took a first step toward economic collaboration at a so-called Super Regional leadership conference dubbed "The Power of Coming Together."

"This is an event that people will look back at," says SunTrust Tampa Bay president Dan Mahurin, "and ask: 'Were you there?' "

The gathering was held on the border of Polk and Osceola counties at the Omni Resort at ChampionsGate, just off Interstate 4. The location was symbolic, being close to the geographic fulcrum between Central Florida's two big metro areas.

In a world that can't seem to look beyond next week, this conference was built on a long-term idea. In many arenas, Tampa Bay and Orlando can (and must try to) do more together than alone. Sounds simple. Rarely happens.

The meeting acknowledged that growth will soon join the greater Tampa Bay and Orlando areas — officially in the 2020s — and then set the stage for that superregion to grow again into what planners call a megaregion.

By making nice now and seeking solutions to common concerns — think water, smart growth, education and, of course, transportation, for starters — Central Florida can emerge more sharply focused, stronger, more competitive and, frankly, a less ugly place to live in the coming decades.

The timing was coincidence, but the recent failure of Orlando's long-sought SunRail commuter rail system proved a rallying cry Thursday. State legislators last week nixed the SunRail plan, even as Tampa Bay's business leaders lobbied for it. Business groups here viewed Orlando's light rail project as a proxy for Tampa Bay's coming effort to win approval for its own TBARTA-branded mass transit.

I'm not sure, but I think I heard more than one attendee humming We Are Family. There was a giddiness in the room as University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, sitting on stage next to University of Central Florida president John Hitt, swapped tales of how their Tampa and Orlando universities serve as intellectual metro engines for higher-wage jobs.

Genshaft described USF's Tampa cluster of medical school, Moffitt Cancer Center, M2Gen Merck venture, Shriner's Hospital, Byrd Alzheimer center and recently arrived Draper Lab of Cambridge, Mass.

Hitt focused on Orlando's "Medical City" springing up around such life science enterprises as a medical school, hospitals and the city's "big catch" in biotech recruiting: the Burnham Institute.

"This whole area is coming together," said Hitt as Genshaft nodded. "How do we help the economy develop high-value, high-wage jobs and more wealth for the people here?"

Well, how about a second date? Someone make that next-day phone call.

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

Business leaders from Tampa and Orlando take first step toward economic partnership 05/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 9:49pm]
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