They came. They spoke. They joked.
Leaders of the three major chambers of commerce representing Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater gathered like long-lost brothers Wednesday, sending a message that regional cooperation is starting to gel.
"We're taking baby steps," says Bill Carlson, president of Tampa's Tucker Hall public affairs firm, a member of all three chambers and an advocate of geographic collaboration.
Starting last year, senior executives of the three chambers have met quarterly in what is called the Council of Chambers to share regional concerns and offer mutual support where possible. The briefing in St. Petersburg was meant to clarify the council's ambitions and show the chambers do not operate only inside their own silos.
Why do we care? Because to the outside world, Tampa Bay is simply one metro area and economy, so locals better exhibit some signs they can work together. And because new and expensive economic pressures are rising — from funding mass transportation, a new baseball stadium and even a new aquarium — that may force regional sharing of such burdens.
"It's okay to be individuals," St. Petersburg chamber CEO Chris Steinocher said, but there are times when this area needs to act as one. "We have to build that kind of trust."
On its own, the Tampa chamber's current priority is the $6 billion economic engine that is MacDill Air Force Base. The chamber wants to ensure that the region fully appreciates all the financial benefits the base provides, and that any business it spins off stays local, said chamber chairman Greg Celestan, CEO of defense company Celestar Corp.
St. Pete chamber chair and Carlton Fields attorney Dave Punzak cited the city's waterfront master plan and reviving economic development among his chamber's goals. And Clearwater chamber chair Nick DiCeglie, chairman of Solar Sanitation, pointed to building membership and supporting his city's proposed downtown marine aquarium.
But all three chambers agree a regional priority is mass transit. In November 2014, Pinellas County will ask voters to okay an overhaul of the transit system, including a sales tax increase for light rail and expanded bus service.
Hillsborough County pushed a similar mass transit plan in 2010 only to see voters reject it. It was a mistake back then for the Tampa chamber not to seek support from other area chambers, Celestan said.
Businesses warn that a metro area of this size without mass transit will eventually be considered obsolete.
Another issue that will challenge regional cooperation is the Tampa Bay Rays' desire for a new baseball stadium, estimated to cost $600 million. Punzak considers a stadium unlikely without higher taxes. Celestan jested that he had to be careful commenting on the Rays so St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster (who insists the Rays remain at Tropicana Field) "does not key my car."
In the audience was Tampa attorney Ron Weaver, who asked if neither Pinellas nor Hillsborough could afford a new stadium, would a broader multicounty tax make sense, because the team is really a regional asset?
It's a smart question about regional potential — just ahead of its time in Tampa Bay.
Punzak's response reflects the take-things-slow process that all chambers of commerce live by. "I don't know if we are there yet."
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]