In a state known for dumb development and a love of asphalt, hopeful signs of smart — or at least smarter — growth are surfacing.
Tell me this is no fluke, no blip on the radar of endless, blinding sprawl.
The best and most recent sign appeared Friday morning at the Tampa Convention Center. A couple hundred regional business and public leaders assembled to learn the results of a three-year exercise to imagine what the greater Tampa Bay area could look like by 2050.
That vision includes input from 10,000 folks in our regional community who were given an opportunity to speak up about what type of livable communities they want here in 40 years.
What they saw was a better way for Tampa Bay in 2050 to accommodate 3.2 million more people and 1.5 million more jobs, including:
• A serious mass transit system of bus, light and high-speed rail that helps control road congestion in a metro area that Forbes magazine already ranks as the nation's worst city for commuters.
• Higher-density housing near public transportation lines, job clusters, and culture and entertainment to trim commuting times and free up more time to do other things.
• More green space for recreation and the natural environment. Less native and agricultural land gobbled up by sprawling development.
• Improved energy efficiency, both in transportation and housing needs. Reduced demand for water compared to long stretches of suburban development.
By 2050, I'll be 95. But this isn't really about me or many of you. My son will be 60 and, hopefully, his kids will be growing up here and enjoying the forethought of smart growth planning and leadership on display Friday.
I've watched the tragi-comedy that is economic development here for nearly 20 years. So it really is a jaw dropper just to see anybody try any regional effort to ask people what they want so far ahead and then to consider how to try to make it happen.
The group behind this unusual look-ahead is called One Bay. Behind it are area organizations with wide-ranging mandates: the Tampa Bay Partnership regional economic development organization; district Urban Land Institute; Southwest Florida Water Management District; Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council; Tampa Bay Estuary Program Management District; and the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA).
"There are thousands of fingerprints on the steering wheel of this vision," says Dan Mahurin, the SunTrust CEO for Tampa Bay who chairs the One Bay effort. Large-scale community input was critical for One Bay to deliver a glimpse of one possible future shaped by more than elite business executives or county and city officials.
A veteran in regional economic development circles, Mahurin on Friday said the idea for One Bay grew out of frustration in 2005 when it became clear the same old efforts to improve our area economy, bolster education, upgrade the work force, tackle transportation woes and to confront sprawl were getting nowhere. Big, complex problems could not be helped with short-term thinking.
"We decided to confront them with longer-term planning," Mahurin says. One Bay is a smart growth process aimed at getting the community to envision what they want their metro area to be by 2050. Other metro areas, including Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and even the state of Maryland, employ similar "visioning" tools to influence development.
Some of you may remember a May 2007 event in Tampa dubbed "Reality Check" at which 300 business and elected officials gathered at the convention center. They were handed buckets of plastic Legos, the popular kids' interlocking blocks. Over large maps of Tampa Bay, they were told to "build" the region in 2050 to handle millions more people and jobs.
That exercise made it clear that 40 more years of run-amok development could ruin this region. And it was the catalyst for One Bay's smart-growth project.
In surveys of area residents, 54 percent embraced a 2050 scenario emphasizing compact design (higher density housing near jobs) along mass transit corridors. More significant, 96 percent rejected a future of "business as usual."
On Friday, One Bay handed the baton of the region's 2050 vision over to area county and city officials in the next step to help make something happen.
Keynote speaker Robert Grow, a smart-growth guru behind the Envision Utah effort, said One Bay is not dictating what Tampa Bay should look like 40 years from now. Instead, it offers a strategy "to preserve" the region's best options and balance the needs of the economy, the community and the environment.
Grow said Tampa Bay can embrace a quality mass transit system, or not. But at least ask: What will Tampa Bay be like without one? Utah's own mass transit system is so far ahead of the original vision, a new campaign is under way to approve another round of funding to accelerate the rail system by 15 years.
That's music to the ears of Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who spoke Friday and once again pitched the November referendum in Hillsborough seeking a new tax for mass transit and roads.
Quality public transportation, Iorio says, would help reverse a lot of "wrong-headed" urban sprawl that has put so many people too far way from their jobs and made them far too dependent on long commutes.
Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard called Tampa Bay's lack of a regional mass transit system "one of our greatest weaknesses" — one that other metro areas recruiting businesses repeatedly use to "one up" our region.
If that's an effective weapon against Tampa Bay's economy now, what will it be in 40 more years?
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.