From economy to education to leadership, there are dozens of potential frontburner issues Tampa Bay must confront. But let's separate the wheat from the chaff. Here's my take on four top priorities this region needs to get a better handle on.
Our sagging infrastructure
Earlier this month, the American Society of Civil Engineers delivered its "Infrastructure Report Card" with an embarrassing D+ grade to the quality of U.S. roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure. It's a respected assessment that the engineering group publishes every four years. The group said an additional $2 trillion in funding is needed to raise the standards.
President Trump wants to spend $1 trillion to fix the nation's infrastructure, which by this report's findings means he's willing to do half of what is really needed. And don't forget that Trump's got to clear Congress first — no easy task given a conservative Republican base that wants to cut government spending.
This is hardly the stuff of Making America Great Again. More like Making America A Little Less Mediocre when it comes to upgrading its worn-out infrastructure.
At the state level, Florida did better than the country overall, getting a C grade on the civil engineer report card. A key finding? "Florida is growing, and the state's infrastructure needs a growth spurt of its own to keep up," says the report. "Recently Florida's population has grown at a rate of about 1 percent per year, adding about 1 million people, which is the equivalent of adding a city the size of Jacksonville every 5 years." As Florida grows, the report finds, investing in infrastructure "must be Florida's top priority to continue to be the place people want to live and work as well as attract visitors from around the country and the world."
By the way, Tampa Bay, that includes getting started on a real mass transit system. And, yes, St. Petersburg, that means fixing your sewage crisis.
Welcome to ScientologyVille
So this is what abdication feels like. Downtown Clearwater, long under the thumb of a well-financed and growing Church of Scientology, is throwing in the towel and will let Scientologists take charge of much of the city core's economic development.
It's a disturbing, astonishing turn of events. Just wait until the world stops fixating on Trump long enough to clue in to Clearwater's surrender. A few newspapers already are paying attention, as this Toronto Star newspaper story from earlier this month notes: "In this down-on-its-heels resort town, one thing is for sure: (Scientology's) an occupying power and avaricious property-gobbling enterprise."
This is just the beginning. Clearwater was long shunned by expanding businesses and other because of the overwhelming presence of Scientology. Now it may win too much attention as the city that couldn't, the downtown that failed to hold its own. Is downtown Clearwater about to become the Scientology version of Vatican City?
Heads up, Tampa Bay. The broader region may not remain immune to the radical rebranding of one of the three cities that make up the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area. Businesses, millennials, retirees, tourists: They will all take notice. Some, perhaps many, will ponder alternative destinations.
Perhaps the Toronto Star headline says it best: "Scientology's Florida kingdom like something out of a Stephen King novel"
May that not become our next slogan.
Economic development angst
The "corporate welfare" attack by conservatives in the Republican-controlled state Legislature is now spreading its firepower beyond Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. Those state-level entities are already in trouble as tax-wasting, government meddling organizations that should leave the "free market" to do its job of growing the Florida economy.
Now comes Act 2, when the same lawmakers are targeting regional economic development corporations. First up: the Orlando Economic Development Commission (EDC), and whether its funding is being wastefully spent.
A spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is leading the anti-EDC charge, told the Orlando Sentinel that House committees will begin reviewing the data from the EDCs and tourism development councils in the coming weeks.
The Tampa Hillsborough EDC has been lobbying in Tallahassee to help save Enterprise Florida, the state-level job recruiting agency that is essentially the mother ship of Florida's regional EDCs. Tampa's EDC already was contacted by House staffers. EDC financial information has been forwarded to them. If Orlando's EDC is falling under "corporate welfare" scrutiny, will Tampa Bay be far behind?
Don't forget that both Plant City and St. Petersburg recently launched their own EDCs. There's a danger here of a domino effect should one EDC start to topple.
Regional transit revamp
What's this? A bona fide step toward structuring a regional approach to mass transit? Who are the state legislators and business leaders behind this and what alien ship brought them here?
After years of parochial, county-driven and ill-fated attempts to jumpstart a mass transit system in the Tampa Bay market, legislation was introduced this month that would shift that effort to a regional player.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, filed bills to restructure TBARTA (Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority) with the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority. The bill would strengthen a lifeless regional transportation agency by giving it a tighter focus, stronger leadership and a clearer mission to create a modern transit system. The bill also seeks to include local business leaders.
Enter the Tampa Bay Partnership. This is the same economic development group that reinvented itself last year to focus on making regional mass transit — whatever form it may eventually take — a realistic goal. In January it released a study titled "The Need for Regional Governance in Tampa Bay" by the Eno Center for Transportation think-tank in Washington, D.C. Business leaders including Tampa Bay Lightning owner and real estate developer Jeff Vinik and Vology CEO Barry Shevlin are heading the partnership's transportation working group on this matter.
The Latvala and Raulerson bills would charge a restructured TBARTA with coordinating regionally relevant transportation projects and creating a process to resolve any conflicts encountered along the way. The new board would establish a committee structure and plan for developing a regional transit plan and bringing those findings back to the legislature ahead of the 2018 session.
Will this regional approach work any better than the unsuccessful Hillsborough-to-Pinellas-to-Hillsborough flip-flops on mass transit that have occurred for years?
The answer is: Absolutely. Then again, what has Tampa Bay got to lose?
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.