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Tampa Bay economic developers set lofty goals amid grim business realities

In the same month that Hillsborough County voters gave a big thumbs down to a new tax for regional mass transit, you'd think a luncheon of 450 of this region's business elite would gather to lick their wounds over such a resounding political defeat.

On the same day that Florida announced the state jobless rate remained stubbornly stuck at 11.9 percent, you'd think an annual meeting of the region's top economic development group would stop and ask: Are we doing enough to generate jobs here?

Talk of lofty goals displaced a more grim reality at the Tampa Bay Partnership's annual meeting Friday, held over salmon and salad at Tampa's A La Carte Event Pavilion.

Outgoing two-term Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio set the tone early with a win-one-for-the-Gipper speech. Iorio's personal quest to win support for light rail and improved bus service failed to win over voters. But she urged the room of executives to persevere.

"I do not view this as a loss at all," Iorio said. "We only lose when we stop trying to improve ourselves."

Where, the mayor asked, would we be if early naysayers had won and the University of South Florida never came to pass? What if those first opposed to what is now Tampa International Airport had been victorious? What if the Bucs never came here?

For a second I thought I was watching Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, in which Clarence the angel shows Jimmy Stewart's character how ugly his town would have become had he never been born.

The good news is Iorio's "never say die" tone reinforced the underlying theme of the partnership luncheon.

Consoled that such metro areas as Charlotte and Phoenix battled repeatedly before winning voter approval for regional mass transit, partnership leaders repeated that they have just begun to fight.

A regional panel of elected area officials and business leaders — responding to questions of What do we do now? — touched on several hot buttons for 2011.

Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, who chairs a county task force on transportation, reiterated what may be the most compelling strategy yet to win funding approval for a bay-wide mass transit system. She called for a regional sales tax for regional transportation instead of the bureaucratic and more politically vulnerable county-by-county sales referendums.

Anticipating the dramatic change ahead in state leadership with incoming Gov. Rick Scott, Tampa's Verizon southeast region president Michelle Robinson and state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, both emphasized how important it is to educate elected officials as early as possible on key business issues and to develop solid relationships before calling for political help.

Politics is like sports, Weatherford said: "It's in the offseason when you get better." If business waits until the Legislature convenes next March to seek results, it will be late in the game.

On health care, BayCare regional health system CEO Steve Mason spoke of ways to raise Tampa Bay's overall health. As the assembled finished their desserts, he wondered: Can this community become America's healthiest?

Kudos and good luck to these and other raise-the-bar goals. Just remember to keep one foot on the hard floor while dreaming so big.

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

Tampa Bay economic developers set lofty goals amid grim business realities 11/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 19, 2010 7:39pm]
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