TAMPA — It started with the banners.
University of South Florida student government leaders wanted to dress up Fowler Avenue with banners welcoming visitors to the university.
At the same time, USF president Judy Genshaft was thinking — not only about roads, but about how the university could work with some of its biggest neighbors to become more of a force for economic development.
Nearly a year later, those thoughts have led to the creation of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, a new venture between USF, the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, University Community Hospital and Busch Gardens.
The group has two goals. One goes back to the banners: to make North Tampa more welcoming and to create a sense of entry for the university, hospitals and theme park.
The other is to establish a brand for the area that emphasizes each institution's role as an innovator in health, research, education or entertainment.
"We're all hoping that it leads to, some day down the line, and it could be years, that when companies think about a great place to open a new headquarters or open a new branch, they think of North Tampa," Busch Gardens spokeswoman Jill Revelle said.
"When you hear Research Triangle, you know what that means," she said of the powerhouse collection of high-tech and science firms that have grown up in central North Carolina. "You may not know any of the companies in the Research Triangle, but you know that it means quality."
For starters, the Tampa Innovation Alliance is looking at an area that goes from Busch Boulevard on the south to Bearss Avenue on the north and is bounded by interstates 75 and 275 on the east and west. It includes parts of the city of Tampa and unincorporated Hillsborough County.
Since the earliest discussions, the group has held two focus groups with representatives from the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace, Hillsborough County, University Mall and the Museum of Science and Industry.
In May, the alliance's four founding institutions signed a memo of understanding and sent out a request for expressions of interest in the project. It has received nine responses, mostly from partnerships of consulting, urban planning, design, architectural, engineering and law firms.
Founders also met last week with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who said he recognizes the importance of the players and their potential for growth.
"I think you will see many of the jobs of the future being created right up there in that corridor," he said.
So far, however, the alliance has not asked the city for anything.
"They want us to be part of the discussion, which I am more than happy to do," Buckhorn said. "They've got some aesthetic issues, some beautification issues which I think in the short term are sort of driving the discussion. The gateways to Moffitt, USF, Busch Gardens and UCH are not particularly attractive, and they should be."
But different roads have different challenges, USF spokesman Michael Hoad said.
Along Busch Boulevard, code enforcement is an issue, he said. Fowler might be improved with better landscaping or beautification.
With Fletcher Avenue, especially between USF and University Community Hospital, the issue is safety. That's a road where USF, the hospital and Moffitt might be able to lobby together to have safety improvements made sooner, not later.
The alliance should be in a position to move forward by the fall, Hoad said.
But before it hires a consultant, it has to incorporate itself with the state, and the founding members need to kick in some money. At one point, Genshaft mentioned a possible contribution of $100,000 each, but that's something the four chief executive officers have to decide.
"That is entirely up to them when they face a decision about scope of work and who to hire," Hoad said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.