Roaming the regional economy, you can feel it. Rising optimism. Bullish expansion plans. It's not perfect out there, not by a long shot. But things are picking up. Tampa and Hillsborough County enjoy startling momentum. St. Petersburg is suddenly astir with fresh downtown energy and focus on its marine science, medical and startup assets. Clearwater revels in an influx of diverse jobs at a pace not seen in a good while.
Small wonder. On Friday, we heard our latest Tampa Bay regional jobless rate fell to 5.9 from 6.3 percent. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties' rates are even lower at 5.7 percent. Here are some of the people sure to influence this metro area's economy in 2014.
Bollywood's coming. And a good part of the arrival of that first-ever event in the United States goes to Kiran Patel — area doctor, philanthropist, real estate developer and cultural activist. The Bollywood awards, more formally known as the International Indian Film Academy's (IIFA) Weekend & Awards, are scheduled for April 24-26 in Tampa. One key organizer told the Tampa Bay Times that Patel was called "the host of IIFA in Tampa Bay." No mega-event happening in this metro area in 2014 is likely to come close to topping the Bollywood awards for international splash and getting the Tampa Bay market in better focus on a global map.
Extending a mayor's reach. Newly installed St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promises a more robust economic agenda. So look to one of his new hires, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, to help Kriseman fulfill that pledge. "She is going to be everywhere," city spokesman Ben Kirby told the Times. "She is an extension of the mayor." There's a lot to do. Put the derailed Pier back on track. Figure out a smarter plan to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in Pinellas (or at least in Tampa Bay). Give St. Pete's port a clear mission. Recruit businesses more aggressively. Create jobs. Make sure Midtown gets economic attention. "Dr. Tomalin" — as she is often introduced these days — holds a doctorate in law and policy. The fifth-generation St. Petersburg resident joins the city staff from Bayfront Health, where she handled strategic planning and public affairs. Husband Terry Tomalin is outdoors editor at the Times.
Port goes regional. The massive economic engine long known as the Tampa Port Authority this past week was rebranded Port Tampa Bay. It's a growing recognition that major infrastructure serving the metro area should better reflect its regional influence. It's no coincidence this happens soon after the arrival of Karl Strauch, the port's vice president of brand development and strategic alliances. Strauch, who arrived at the port only last summer, brought extensive branding strategy experience.
Honing our tech identity. Want a challenge? Name something that makes Tampa Bay No. 1. Barry Shevlin, chief executive at Vology, a 200-employee reseller of networking technology, thinks the tech community here is misunderstood. The Oldsmar-based CEO recently pitched the idea to the Tampa Bay Partnership that this region is tops nationally for B2B or "business-to-business" technology companies — businesses like area giants Tech Data Corp. and Jabil or Nielsen or Sykes Enterprises, whose customers are other businesses. Why not brand Tampa Bay as the "B2B Capital" of technology companies? That kind of branding might crystalize the identity of the regional tech community, attract more businesses and keep more talent here. Is the regional Tampa Bay Technology Forum on board? So far, the tech group likes the concept. Shevlin realizes this idea will take time to mature. "I am trying to bang the drum loudly," he says.
Big pharma arrives. The new and much anticipated North America Capability Center at Bristol-Myers Squibb opened Jan. 13 in Tampa. Look for company veteran Lee Evans, executive director and site head, to soon play a more public role in the business community. For now, the giant drug company's recruiting is focused on hiring people with expertise in information technology, marketing, business and finance, among other functions supporting its U.S. pharmaceutical business. The company says it is "pleased with its progress filling available positions" and will continue recruiting employees over the next three years. A ribbon-cutting for the Tampa center, near Tampa International Airport, is coming soon. Look for about 579 positions in Tampa by 2017.
Silence of the auditors. In less than two months, Tampa Bay's largest public company (by revenue) hits a painful one-year anniversary. Sixty-two press releases ago on March 21, 2013, Clearwater's Tech Data Corp. disclosed some of its earnings reports — a company's public record of performance — in recent years may be wrong. Ever since that day, Bob Dutkowsky, chief executive officer, has been required to remain miserably mum about the financial performance of a $25 billion-a-year sales giant. Investors are in the dark on how things are going. And the Nasdaq, where Tech Data shares trade, keeps threatening the company for noncompliance as Tech Data keeps seeking extensions in time. The problem? "Improprieties" in how the company's British subsidiary reflected vendor accounting. If this all sounds bad for Tech Data, take heart: Its stock price is thriving near a 12-month high. And once cleared to discuss the company's situation, Dutkowsky again will be front and center.
Greenlight or red light? When Hillsborough County tried to convince county voters in 2010 to approve a penny tax for mass transit, tea party activists helped defeat the effort. Now Barbara Haselden, tea party activist and a leader of the No Tax for Tracks movement, will try to accomplish the same in Pinellas County. She's fighting a planned county referendum slated for November to raise money for a mass-transit plan that includes a 24-mile light rail line. This past Tuesday, Haselden criticized the transit plan at a forum in Largo attended by about 120 people. Thursday evening, a No Tax member handed out flyers outside the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce annual dinner, as pro-plan Greenlight Pinellas handed out literature inside the event. Can Haselden stop this project?
Dudley Do-Right. He got elected to the state Legislature on a platform promising to fight a 2006 law that lets big power companies charge their customers far in advance for nuclear power projects, whether or not the projects get built. This past week, Rep. Dwight Dudley, D- St. Petersburg, filed a proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 693) that would prevent utilities from charging customers for new power plants until the facilities start operating. North Carolina-based Duke Energy, parent of Duke Energy Florida, is one power giant that loves that 2006 law. And why not? It was a ridiculous and anti-free-market gift to electric monopolies by Florida's groupthink legislators. If Duke had its way, it would like to see the law expanded to fund even more types of power plant projects by billing customers in advance.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]