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Can the Tampa Bay region establish itself as an economic 'cluster'?

Gary Sasso, CEO of the Tampa-based Carlton Fields law firm and the next chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership, seeks to give the bay area an edge.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Gary Sasso, CEO of the Tampa-based Carlton Fields law firm and the next chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership, seeks to give the bay area an edge.

Pssst. Know what Tampa Bay's economic Holy Grail is?

"Clusters" of related businesses, well capitalized and nurtured, that play off the bay area's natural strengths and work force skills. Clusters that promise to yield high growth for the metro area and a long-term supply of higher-wage jobs. Clusters that distinguish Tampa Bay and give it a distinctive, dynamic brand that can help sell the region to expanding businesses.

Problem is, that's pretty much the same economic development goal as every state, metro area and city.

"Cluster" is the big buzzword of economic experts charged with breaking look-alike metro areas out of the pack and distinguishing them on a global scale. Some places have reached gold medal cluster status. Boston and Silicon Valley got it with high tech. Portland, Ore., stands out in green industries, while Nashville and Austin, Texas, are winners in the country music business.

We can thank Harvard professor Michael Porter and his "comparative advantage" thesis for popularizing clusterthink.

Can thinly branded Tampa Bay find its true industry clusters and prosper?

That's what Gary Sasso wants. In November, the CEO and 22-year veteran of Tampa's Carlton Fields law firm is expected to become chairman for the next year of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the regional economic development group. And identifying specific industry clusters that best fit Tampa Bay and its work force is a Sasso priority (along with championing mass transit for the business community).

The partnership plans a detailed study of this region's potential clusters. Results should be out in the fall. "We hope this identifies our strengths," said Sasso, 56. "We want to identify our engines of growth."

Now, wait just a minute. Don't we already know Tampa Bay's industry clusters? Aren't they biotech/life sciences, technology, alternative energy, health care and financial services?

University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft spent untold hours beating the biotech drum and committing USF incubator and lab space to encourage business alliances in biotech.

Three years ago, regional economist Joe Cortright unveiled a study called "Things Look Different Here: The Economic Importance of Tampa Bay's Distinctiveness" at a Tampa Bay Partnership meeting. He identified such likely clusters as health care, financial services and manufacturing medical devices and electronics.

All of that input and more is useful. But the partnership wants an updated and regionally comprehensive analysis of the best clusters for the area. The study also will examine this area's existing work force to see if any existing skill sets are underused and could serve as a basis for any untapped industry clusters.

Miami-born Sasso was supposed to chair the partnership starting next fall. He agreed to move his commitment up a year when Jeff Lyash, chair apparent, left his job here as Progress Energy Florida CEO to take another executive position with the company in North Carolina.

"Businesses want to be in a progressive region," says Sasso, an avowed optimist. "The next 10 years for the Tampa Bay region will be its best."

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

Can the Tampa Bay region establish itself as an economic 'cluster'? 10/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2009 9:42pm]

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