St. Petersburg finds its economic development strategy assisted by a most odd and uninvited advocate: BP, courtesy of last year's destructive gulf oil spill.
Before that disaster, the city's marine science industry cluster was growing nicely, if quietly. With BP's global notoriety and the local receipt of some serious BP fix-it funds from the spill, the marine science and ocean technology hub operating around the University of South Florida's marine sciences college in St. Petersburg has landed in the spotlight as one of the more unique and promising clusters in all of Florida.
Let's now look east, across the bay.
The city of Tampa and Hillsborough County are trying to persuade Jackson Laboratory, a genetics research firm in Bar Harbor, Maine, to forget about setting up shop in Collier County and to ignore Orlando's urging from its "Medical City" cluster to expand there. Tampa's personal pitch to Jackson? You've already got a working history with the University of South Florida. Come join our young biotech cluster.
Going from a statewide to a regional perspective and finally to a city-level look at how industry clusters are born is like switching from a telescope to a microscope. What seemed small and distant suddenly seems daunting when it's local and right in your face.
This is a story about St. Petersburg and Tampa, our metro area's two biggest cities, and their individual quests to better recognize their business strengths and upgrade their economies — all in the name of generating better-paying jobs in the future. The goal is for local economies to find ways to grow more competitive and attract more talent in what is becoming a tougher and, frankly, more brutal global market.
But will it work?
That's the same question I've asked of the state and the Tampa Bay region in the first two columns in this series. Just saying you have identified five or six industry clusters to nourish does not mean they will prosper. Just hiring hotshot consulting firms to issue thousands of pages of reports and recommendations will not by itself produce those $50,000-and-up jobs every city in America covets.
Building and sustaining an industry cluster is a complex formula. It involves state, regional and city-level economic development commitment. It requires the salesmanship skills of people like Gov. Rick Scott, city Mayors Bill Foster and Pam Iorio (and her soon-to-be-elected Tampa successor), and the Go-Bulls grin of economy-savvy USF chief Judy Genshaft. It requires smart work force training. It needs Florida's famous QTI (Qualified Targeted Industry) tax incentives.
It demands raising the still too-low bar on state education. Yes, our public K-12 system is improving. But the wide world perception is that it remains a weak link in Florida's asset mix.
It's about building a quality of life here to keep more young and talented people in Tampa Bay rather than migrating to youth meccas like Austin, Atlanta, Houston or Washington, D.C.
And, of course, it's about business leadership. Who are the leaders of these industry clusters St. Petersburg and Tampa so eagerly want? Are they in the loop and on board with the cluster strategy? Do they take the time needed to kick-start still early cluster-building efforts in St. Petersburg or Tampa?
Let's take a quick tour of these two cities and their cluster strategies:
The city launched a series of industry cluster summit meetings in 2010 to raise awareness and get St. Pete businesses talking about ways to grow the city's six clusters. The next summit, focused on the city's financial services cluster, is set for March.
City officials are so into the cluster concept that they are assigning specific staffers on the economic development team to individual clusters, says Dave Goodwin, director of planning and economic development.
So, I ask, which of the six clusters seem to have the most momentum and potential? The city's senior development folks cite three. First, of course, is marine sciences. The city's so keen on the cluster that it has just created its own marketing brand — "St. Petersburg Ocean Team." In one compact downtown area, the cluster boasts USF's College of Marine Science, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Services and the U.S. Geological Survey Coastal & Marine Science Center, just to name a few members.
Then there's nearby SRI International. Because of its high-profile research reputation and deep defense industry ties, SRI is the Big Wow factor for the cluster. It was lured in late 2009 to a brand new waterfront building in St. Petersburg near the USF marine sciences property. It's the crown jewel that will be touted in campaigns to bolster the marine science cluster with new players.
But SRI is not the only muscle. In St. Petersburg, David Fries was one of USF's Center for Ocean Technology's founders. Now he's USF's "entrepreneur in residence" who's making waves commercializing research in the areas of port security, water sensors and environmental testing.
He's spun off a couple of firms — thus deepening the cluster already — including Voda LLC and Bioplex Technologies, which makes water-based sensor equipment. Since the BP disaster, Fries says interest by government agencies has spiked in USF-related technologies like the "Solar Autonomous Underwater Vehicle." That's the robotic device that can travel the gulf on its own and take water samples. Fries envisions various high- and low-tech versions of these underwater drones criss-crossing the gulf as spill watchdogs of the entire Gulf of Mexico oil drilling industry.
At a November city summit for a manufacturing cluster, CEO Abdul Lateef of the St. Petersburg company Plasma-Therm talked of the potential of a local manufacturing revival. Last week, he reiterated that call, citing a mini-cluster of businesses here like his, all involved in the semiconductor market.
Another hot button is the arts, culture and tourism cluster. The city's coming off a big month with the opening of the new Salvador Dalí Museum.
"There was a time when none of the museums in this city even talked to each other," recalls Rick Mussett, St. Petersburg's senior administrator for city development. Now they do, to coordinate marketing and leverage their tourism opportunities.
Before I arrived at this newspaper 20 years ago, Tampa boasted the grandiose slogan, "America's Next Great City." When the rough early '90s economy deflated that saying, Tampa took on a more humble and informal nickname: "Call Center Capital of America."
Now the city's working on five industry clusters in pursuit of a more organized economic upgrade. To help add focus, Keith Norden, head of the still new Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. — the former Committee of 100 — worked with the consulting firm Biggins Lacy Shapiro & Co. to assess Tampa's strengths and weaknesses.
Tampa's five meat-and-potato industry clusters play to the city's strengths. Among the five are biotechnology — hence the Jackson Laboratory interest noted at the top of this column — and banking back offices, which Tampa has aplenty. What wasn't recommended? Alternative energy and amateur sports tournaments — proposed cluster ideas that lack the area economic bench strength to make the final cut.
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So, where are we? The state's got its own cluster goals. Tampa Bay has its regional mission. And cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg are pursuing their own plans. The good news is everybody agrees industry clusters make sense as a development tool.
The challenge is to make sure all these many economic development initiatives do not end up watering down the whole point of industry clusters — concentrating enough like businesses and organizations geographically to grow quicker and smarter.
What's better: Three small biotech clusters, each with 10 companies? Or one biotech cluster with 30 companies? Which one's more likely to reach critical mass?
True, you can't pick up USF Tampa and move its biotech assets to Orlando. The medical complex of Bayfront and All Children's hospitals in St. Petersburg cannot be transplanted to Tampa. Amid plenty of potential, there are limits to the magic of clusters.
Contact Robert Trigaux at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Venture blog at www.tampabay.com/blogs/venturebiz/.