They came. They saw. They compared.
More than 150 business leaders from Richmond, Va., spent the past week on a tour of the Tampa Bay business, cultural and entrepreneurial scene. The mission? To find any and all best practices employed here that the Richmond metro area can adopt, in the process making the economy of Virginia's capital city more competitive and appealing for future growth.
It's called a benchmarking visit. That's when one metro area's business elite tours another city in search of better ways to do things and to confirm that, at least in some ways, their region remains an economic competitor.
And it's a way for the host city to get some outside feedback, as well.
"What I heard is that most of the Richmond folks were impressed with what they saw here," said Kim Scheeler, CEO of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, whose group organized the benchmarking visit.
"Tampa once suffered from a bit of an inferiority complex, but I think they have overcome that," noted Scheeler, who ran Tampa's Chamber of Commerce for seven years before taking the Richmond job in 2008.
In interviews, Richmond business executives offered both good insights and economic frustrations that would sound right at home here. But one remark stood out that should remind Tampa Bay it has much for which to be thankful.
Richmond, I was told, is an old Southern city steeped in history and a long-standing reluctance to change. People there want to know how many generations in Richmond your lineage runs, what part of the city you live in and what schools you attended. That pedigree test influences where and how well folks, even those who may have lived in Richmond for decades, are accepted. But it can frustrate business newcomers.
Tampa Bay has vestiges of that Southern way, but what little remains is fading fast. This metro area, where so many are from somewhere else, prides itself on accepting new talents and quickly incorporating them into leadership positions. That is a major regional strength.
Tampa Bay takes its own benchmarking tours, recently including trips to Nashville and Baltimore. But last week, it was Tampa Bay's turn to strut its stuff to Richmond. Though the metro area is smaller in population, Richmond boasts more Fortune 1000 headquarters than we have here.
Tampa Bay put its best face forward, from the perfect weather and enthusiasm of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's "It's our time" message to a private flamenco dancing show during lunch at Ybor City's Columbia restaurant. The visit also included rousing tours of St. Petersburg's arts-filled waterfront, a look at USF's role in business startups and a stop at Chromalloy's advanced manufacturing facility in Tampa.
Richmond's challenges overlap with Tampa Bay's. The controversial subject of regionalism — when and why a greater metro area should act with once voice on issues of common concern — is as sensitive in Richmond as it is to Tampa Bay's tri-city, multicounty interests.
"It can be frustrating," said Scheeler, whose chamber spans nine political jurisdictions in the greater Richmond area. "One reason we are here is to see if regionalism has made some strides."
Some Richmond executives shared early impressions during their trip.
Ed Baine, vice president of Dominion Resources, a major electric utility based in Richmond, liked how clean and safe downtown Tampa and Ybor City felt. And he said he gained new appreciation for the value of signage that can both inform and direct people to events and places.
But he also asked about the state of mass transit here — hardly Tampa Bay's selling point. Smaller Richmond is just starting to ponder how to make its growing metro area easier to get around.
Nancy Bagranoff, dean of the University of Richmond Robins School of Business, spoke for many in praising Tampa's efforts to make its Riverwalk, with its colorful LED-lit bridges, along the Hillsborough River a pedestrian centerpiece in downtown redevelopment. It's a clear role model for Richmond's own task to improve the appeal of city frontage on the historic James River.
Sam Young, president and co-founder of the IT staffing firm Astyra Corp. in Richmond, wanted new ideas on how to boost technology skills in his metro area's workforce. Richmond companies gobble up most IT workers, and Young feels his area businesses, schools and governments could better cooperate in delivering IT training services to area workers in need of retraining.
"We tend to have a bureaucracy on such matters," Young said.
On Friday, Buckhorn again visited with the Richmond group to field any final questions before the tour headed for the airport. Wistfully, Young called Buckhorn's remarks on Tampa's bold ambitions this week "galvanizing," as if his city's leadership should borrow some of Mayor Bob's confidence, or as the mayor calls it: "swagger."
While the Richmond visit may now be over, the New Orleans/Baton Rouge business community plans a benchmarking tour here later this year. How refreshing to see this metro area boast more to share with its peers.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]