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In Tampa, two chamber leaders embrace collaboration, grapple with a regional business brand

You could say Chuck Black is today and Greg Celestan is tomorrow.

Black, 61 and former president of the Tampa Electric utility, now consults on energy issues. He is approaching the ninth inning of his year as chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Celestan, 50, a West Point graduate, started his own defense industry business after a military career. He will take on the Tampa chamber chairman's duties for 2013.

There will be change, which is good, but also continuity. Says Celestan: "We set this up to be evolutionary, not revolutionary."

Remember, chambers of commerce tend to be patient organizations.

The two executives sat down together for an extended interview. They touched on more than a half dozen Big Picture topics.

The focus? How to make Tampa and, yes, Tampa Bay a stronger economy. How to make this place better equipped to compete. How to attract and keep young talent. How to encourage business startups.

And how to sharpen our dulled business identity here.

Here are some of their best thoughts on six timely topics:

Regionalism: It used to be any city chamber's most despised word. Now Black and Celestan both agree there are more issues — from business recruitment and improving the workforce to fighting for mass transit and keeping a major-league baseball team — that demand regional collaboration by the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater community. That was one lesson learned in pulling off the recent Republican National Convention.

Says Black: "When the economy was booming, there was less need for collaboration and people focused on their own issues. It was natural. But with today's economic conditions and the RNC giving us a national platform, collaboration is significantly better than it has been."

Here's an example: A "council of chambers" was recently formed that brings together the chambers of commerce in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater on a regular basis to discuss how to move forward as one group on regional challenges.

Collaboration is a great idea, but if big projects — consider mass transit or a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays — cannot be funded on a regional basis, then Tampa Bay may inevitably fall behind its metro peers.

"Without a regional funding mechanism," Black concedes, "it is very difficult."

Building our defense industry: In 2004, Celestan started Celestar, his 125-employee defense consulting firm, in Tampa thanks to MacDill Air Force Base serving as home to both U.S. Special Operations Command and Central Command. Both chamber leaders see big opportunities to leverage MacDill's $5 billion-plus contribution to the area defense economy and to rally hundreds of under-the-radar defense firms here into a more influential and visible group.

The chamber and area legislators are pushing to win new Boeing KC-46 refueling tankers for MacDill. At the least, they want to keep the tanker operations now here.

The big economic worry, says Celestan, are the automatic and severe defense cuts scheduled for 2013 aimed at reducing the federal deficit. But Celestan is upbeat. He says the future role of the military means fewer traditional forces and more highly focused actions under the guidance of Special Operations Command. That's a plus for a still-growing defense industry that continues to attract new firms here.

Keeping up with other metro areas: The chamber leaders were part of an influential group that recently returned from a "benchmarking" tour of Baltimore — another city that, like Tampa, revolves around a seaport business and significant medical assets, and enjoys similar pro sports franchises. The group toured the city's redeveloped Inner Harbor, Camden Yards (home of the Baltimore Orioles), and the U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade, where 50,000 people work. And they talked with executives at Johns Hopkins, which last year made St. Petersburg's All Children's Hospital part of the Hopkins medical system.

Beyond its obvious role as a health provider, All Children's is also a formidable economic development tool. Says Black: "Knowing you have that kind of pediatric-care facility in the community is a strong sell."

Transportation: There's a rising fear in business circles that Tampa Bay could slip further behind other metro areas already using light rail or some sort of mass-transit system. The issue plays to the regional collaboration effort, Black and Celestan say. Having three major and possibly up to 20 smaller area chambers of commerce unite behind mass transit is more forceful than one chamber in one county — as Hillsborough learned when county voters in 2010 denied a tax increase for light rail, plus bus and road improvements.

"Mass transit will never be less expensive than it is today," Black argues. "If we wait too long, it may become so politically expensive that it may not happen. I would like to see some urgency applied to this." The key, he says, is reviving the economy sooner than later.

The Tampa Bay Rays: The bottom line for the Tampa Chamber is that the Rays are a "regional asset." If neither St. Petersburg nor Pinellas County can come up with a stadium plan to keep the Rays in the area, then Tampa at least wants a shot at doing so. Besides, most of the Tampa Bay business community's efforts to provide input on a potential Rays move were initiated by a handful of business leaders that includes former Tampa chamber chair Chuck Sykes.

"It's a regional issue," Black says. "There are only 30 major-league teams, and we have one of them."

What we want to be: A perennial challenge for Tampa (and Tampa Bay) is trying to find an answer to what this area's economy can stand for in the eyes of the nation and world. Orlando is all about tourism. Miami has a Latin gateway image. Charlotte has banking. Austin has cool culture and technology. Raleigh-Durham has the Research Triangle.

What about Tampa? That's Celestan's mantra. Tampa's business identity could be defense-related, given MacDill's presence, though it is tricky to build an economic image so dependent on fickle federal budgets. It could be technology, the Tampa chamber leaders say, citing recent momentum to improve IT workforce skills and efforts to add more services to support area entrepreneurs and business startups.

This is a tough area to brand one way or the other. Black and Celestan say they will need more input from area businesses to figure this out. Black insists there is a "winnowing" under way to narrow the choices for a Tampa brand.

I wish them luck. The business branding curse for Tampa Bay may ultimately prove to be that there is no single-industry message that can define this area.

But for now, these guys are eager to try to make one happen.

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

In Tampa, two chamber leaders embrace collaboration, grapple with a regional business brand 10/26/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 26, 2012 9:33pm]
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