Monday, December 11, 2017
Business

Trigaux: Hillsborough's public sniping undermines regional economic goals

We could chalk up this past week of Hillsborough politicos griping about one of the county's chief economic development leaders, Rick Homans, to this familiar remark:

What we have is a failure to communicate.

Or in Homans' case, a failure to communicate often enough. Or perhaps to say the things that the Hillsborough County Commission wants to hear — or else.

A spat that's been simmering awhile bubbled over into this past Wednesday's county commission meeting. It started with Commissioner Sandy Murman saying that Homans' Tampa Hills­borough Economic Development Corp. is taking overseas trips to encourage new business, often in the company of Mayor Bob Buckhorn, without taking along a county commissioner.

Outrageous.

Then Commission Al Higginbotham chimed in, expressing annoyance that the EDC may be veering from the prescribed path of economic development — without the commission even knowing it.

"It might be good at some point in the future that we bring Mr. Homans back in here for a discussion and some redirection, because I can tell you that this board member is not happy about it," Higginbotham said. "Mr. Homans has lost his way."

Unforgiveable.

Then out popped the money threat. If the commission is not getting what it wants, maybe it should redirect the funding it gives the EDC to support a significant portion of its operations.

That bluster was quickly seconded by Commissioners Kevin Beckner and Victor Crist.

Let's show this infidel.

After spending nearly a decade reporting amid the often petty politics in Washington, D.C., I swore to myself that I'd steer clear of such events whenever possible in the Tampa Bay area.

Today, I failed. For good reason. This column is not aimed at belittling the Hillsborough County Commission, as much as it might deserve it. But surely the commissioners could have found a more mature way to get Homans' attention.

It's not as if the EDC lounges about nibbling bonbons all day. Under Homans and an energized staff, the economic development group has helped deliver some major business expansion projects in both Tampa and Hillsborough County. Two whopper deals — the high-end expansion of drug giant Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Amazon distribution center — happen to be sited on county land.

The Hillsborough County Commission provides $700,000 to the EDC in fiscal 2014, or just under a quarter of the total EDC budget of $2.9 million. More than half of the EDC budget comes from area businesses, sponsorships and revenue generated by EDC events.

None of this is meant to excuse Homans and his team for failing to communicate properly — with maybe a touch of bowing and scraping — to county government.

That's why Homans has already offered his mea culpa in print and spent most of Friday talking to County Commissioner Ken Hagan and Assistant County Administrator Ron Barton to try to ease tensions. That process continues this coming week with others in county government.

"I am committed to increasing our culture of communications," Homans said Friday.

"Rick recognizes the Hillsborough County Commission is the EDC's largest shareholder, so we have to make sure we communicate with them, no doubt," says banker Allen Brinkman, the EDC's current chairman and the CEO of SunTrust Tampa Bay. The EDC reports quarterly to the County Commission, while one commissioner even sits on the EDC board. "So the perception was that the county was getting enough information, but perhaps the individual commissioners were not."

Brinkman calls Wednesday's meeting remarks "unfortunate."

"I believe this is an easy, solvable issue," Brinkman says.

On Friday, Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano chimed in, praising Homans and the EDC for supporting the airport's international expansion efforts, from Panama to Switzerland.

"Rick's interaction with us at the airport has been very positive," Lopano says. "He's embraced the whole concept of collaboration and teamwork."

No question, Homans is not a follower. He's pushed an idea dubbed MediFuture that, at the least, will deliver a major conference this fall in Tampa that raises the profile of this area among the world's more innovative health care providers. Pushed further, however, MediFuture would threaten some of the established health care providers and businesses here by seeking more efficient, lower-cost medical services. That may produce a backlash Homans may not be in a position to defend. A compromise may result.

Another irritant to some Hillsborough officials was last month's announcement that Hillsborough and Pinellas officials had formed the Tampa Bay Export Alliance to lead international trade missions. Homans at the time joked the alliance was a "bromance" between him and Pinellas economic development chief Mike Meidel.

Regional cooperation partially funded by Hillsborough dollars? That's not sitting well with already prickly Hillsborough commissioners, though it's unclear if this matter could have been resolved with better communications.

Serving as an economic development leader in the Tampa Bay area is never easy. The multicounty, multicity structure of the area guarantees a political and corporate minefield. And while gracious talk of regional cooperation tends to swell in tougher times when everyone feels the need to unite, the sentiment often fades in a stronger economy.

Homans isn't a big fan of city and county lines. All of them say their economic sales pitch is infinitely stronger when describing the resources of one Tampa Bay metro region.

Odds are, Homans will get past this moment of discontent. It was, after all, Tampa's own search group of senior business executives who handpicked Homans to run the EDC with a mandate to stir the pot and make things happen.

That at-times messy mission seems well under way.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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