Tampa Hillsborough EDC celebrates success, but urges raising economic bar

Published October 28 2015

TAMPA – Hunting for bear? There were none to be found in the bullish crowd of nearly 600 Tuesday evening inside the Amalie Arena gathered for the annual meeting of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.

The theme? Job recruitment and business expansion is on more of a roll than ever in Tampa and across Hillsborough County. As proof, a long line of economic development leaders, airport and port CEOs, managers of expanding corporations, mayors and county commissioners all came to the podium atop the home ice of the Tampa Bay Lightning and essentially tried to outdo one another in saying:

Things are good but are only going to get better.

Incoming EDC chair Colleen Chappell, CEO of the ChappellRoberts marketing firm based in Ybor City, said the organization would keep pushing to attract bigger and better company expansions, and hopefully some corporate headquarters here. But she added there is more to do, especially to encourage more talented and entrepreneurial millennials to find good reasons to stay or move here. Chappell said 42 percent of her firm's employees are creative millennials (24 to 35 years old) and appealed to her business audience that — when it comes to the increasingly diverse next generation —it will be "hard to plan for the future without them."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn spoke of the rising opportunities in his city's downtown, a place that's becoming a live-work-play environment that will appeal to young adults. He also talked of expanding the downtown reach to the distant side of the Hillsborough River with a master plan development.

"Our urban experience in the next five years will change the skyline in ways we cannot imagine," said Buckhorn.

The mayor of Temple Terrace, Frank Chillura, praised the lack of political bickering so common in the past and endorsed recent efforts by an "innovation alliance" backed by USF, Moffitt Cancer Center and other nearby economic engines to help revive the small city's broader university area. Plant City Mayor Rick Lott reminded the audience his city was emboldened enough to launch its own EDC to spur local development, saying his town was "in the right place at the right time."

In turn, County Commission chair Sandy Murman cited multiple locations where job growth was plentiful, and suggested Hillsborough's economy could become one of the best in the nation.

The evening's lovefest reflected the strong showing of the EDC's string of successful job recruiting. In the past six years, the EDC has helped 146 companies expand here with more than 20,000 added jobs and $1.2 billion of investments in Hillsborough County. In fiscal 2015, 22 companies moved or expanded here, investing $120.7 million and creating 3,420 jobs.

The event also featured testimonials from two prominent companies that recently moved or expanded here. Bristol-Myers Squibb area manager Lee Evans, who runs the pharmaceutical giant's "shared capability" center, volunteered an "A-plus" when asked from the podium what grade he would give the area's workforce. "We could not have done any better anywhere else in the country," Evans said. And at fast growing financial services giant USAA, area manager Yvette Segura said 26 percent of the many hundreds the firm employs in this area are veterans (or their spouses), a sign of the deep bench strength of 90,000 military personnel found in this metro area.

Among some lighter moments, the duet of Tampa International CEO Joe Lopano and Port Tampa Bay chief Paul Anderson bantered as buddies at the podium, seemingly trying to out-praise one another's successes in either bringing more international flights to TIA or running the largest (by acreage) port in the state. Anderson gave a nod to the "cool swagger" of a Tampa "Rat Pack" embodied by Mayor Buckhorn, while Lopano and Anderson debated which characters they might be from the so-called Frank Sinatra-led gang of cool from the mid-1960s.

The event was not without some uncertainty. EDC CEO Rick Homans, after years of elevating the organization's performance, has already accepted a new job locally as CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership — another economic development group with a broader regional mandate but without a clear mission. A search to find a new EDC leader will start shortly.

As incoming EDC chair for the new year, Chappell closed the annual meeting's formal presentations with a call for everyone listening from the Arena seats to step up and get more involved in raising the bar of the business sector.

"Economic development is a contact sport," said Chappell, a perfect reminder inside the home of the Lightning that power plays done well can score jobs as well as goals.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com Follow @venturetampabay.

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