Never, ever let it be said that Tampa is not trying hard to become Panama's best buddy.
"If you do not go and get the business, it will not come to you," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said at Thursday's briefing on his latest business development mission to Panama. "People want to do business with people they know."
Panama smacks of opportunity on four distinct fronts — all of them potential winners for this metro area. They are:
1. Tourism and trade. By growing and leveraging the new direct Copa Airlines flights between Tampa International Airport and Panama City, this region hopes to position Panama as its own "gateway" connection to other major Central and South American cities. It's a strategy that could at least lessen Miami's current East Coast stranglehold as the Latin gateway.
2. Global shipping via a greatly expanded Panama Canal. Expected to be operational by 2015, the canal offers tempting cargo opportunities for Port Tampa Bay, as Tampa's port recently branded itself. Tampa continues to claim it is this country's "closest port" to the Panama Canal in hopes that proximity will boost shipping volumes ahead.
3. Direct business ties with Panama. Tampa leaders visiting there described the intense economic activity and density of cranes in Panama City as signs that this is a country with GDP momentum and bigger ambitions. Tampa businesses want to be a part of that growth.
4. Education. A big part of Buckhorn's latest delegation was made up of University of South Florida health care officials. They see great potential to recreate in Panama a version of its CAMLS (Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation) training facility now in downtown Tampa.
All of these pursuits are aided by the proficiency of English in Panama and the country's use of the U.S. dollar as its currency.
But there are no guarantees.
Exactly who benefits from the coming expansion of the Panama Canal is not yet clear. Many ports are adding harbor capacity and readying to handle larger ships. But not all ports can be winners.
Port Tampa Bay officials note they are involved with fellow gulf port partners Houston and Mobile, Ala., in a joint marketing initiative called the "Gulf Coast Advantage." The effort aims to boost awareness among those global container shipping companies planning new services with larger vessels once the expanded Panama Canal opens.
A few weeks earlier, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam took his own delegation that included the likes of Plant City berry and vegetable grower and broker Gary Wishnatzki of Wish Farms. On his return, Putnam acknowledged the trade potential with Panama.
But Putnam also cautioned that the booming Central American nation could become a more potent direct competitor with Florida as its own "gateway" to the Americas.
Tampa Bay's latest trip to Panama was dominated by Tampa economic development officials and business leaders in the construction, health care and financial sectors. Representation from Pinellas and Pasco counties was minimal at best.
This was Buckhorn's third trip to Panama since 2011 — on top of separate missions taken to Brazil and Colombia. This time, he returned with an ornate key to Panama City, given by its mayor in a solemn presentation.
Other Tampa leaders on the trip volunteered their own anecdotal evidence that new Copa flights to Panama already are paying dividends. Tampa International Airport chief Joe Lopano said that on the return flight he was seated next to an Oldsmar man in the granite countertop business who described the easy three-hour direct flights as a life changer. Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson, also on the trip, sat next to a St. Petersburg businessman and frequent Panama traveler who called the direct flights a game changer.
At USF, CAMLS CEO Debbie Sutherland said that during the trip, "we began discussions on the design-build phase of the (Panama CAMLS) project" and the scope of its activities. Panama's standards for curriculum development and clinical care are based on U.S. models, Sutherland said, another plus in facilitating ties.
Next up? Tampa officials want to return the hospitality enjoyed in Panama by inviting a delegation from that country here, probably within the year.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]