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Waiting for Tampa and Orlando's royal wedding

While Britain's royal wedding captivated millions worldwide Friday, the ongoing courtship between the Tampa Bay and Orlando metro areas to become a Central Florida "super region" managed to attract a Who's Who of roughly 400 business and government officials to the Tampa Convention Center.

The takeaway? Plenty of suggestions poured off the podium on a day that was part pep rally and part strategy fest for improving Central Florida's business future.

Ideas ranged from marketing Central Florida as a medical mecca for abundant clinical trials (I guess a large pool of aging people with maladies is one of our assets) to reigniting a regional passion for mass transportation in the wake of the recent loss of support for a Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line and voter defeat last fall of a mass transit tax in Hillsborough County.

Sorting through what makes sense for the mission of becoming a megaregion may have gotten a bit muddled at times during the third annual "super region" conference. The event was put on by the regional tag team of the Tampa Bay Partnership and its Orlando counterpart, the Central Florida Partnership.

Still, it's great to have a gathering that lets business leaders all along the state's Interstate 4 corridor get to know each other. Experts anticipate a Central Florida "megaregion" to emerge by midcentury.

Jeff Atwater, elected last fall as Florida's chief financial officer, best summarized the need for economic change in his comments about the Sunshine State's outdated economic engine:

"We mastered the ability to sell cheap, abundant land to people tired of shoveling snow," he told attendees, urging them to keep planning for the future. "What did that do for us long term?"

On a related theme, former state official Dale Brill, now chairman of the Florida Chamber Foundation (affiliated with the state chamber of commerce), suggested Florida's business community has proved "complacent" while the state tries to create a strategic plan.

Attending Friday's conference was former Mississippi economic development chief Gray Swoope, hand picked by Gov. Rick Scott to head the bulk of Florida's consolidated economic development agencies. Swoope's greatest challenge, Brill said, will be truly diversifying a state economy that has tried to be diversified for a hundred years.

"Either we're profoundly poor at this or we've not taken it seriously," Brill said.

Swoope, all of six weeks on the job in Florida, spoke before an audience well aware that he is now the front man on Scott's promise to deliver 700,000 new jobs to the state in seven years. When one panelist spoke of 15,000 jobs being generated by Orlando's "Medical City" cluster rising at Lake Nona, Swoope joked that now he had only 685,000 more jobs to go.

State incentives will never make a bad deal good, but they can make a good deal better, Swoope said.

Tom Murphy, a former 12-year mayor of Pittsburgh, told the group that the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line — had it happened — could have transformed the tourism brands of Orlando ("Disney") and Tampa Bay ("beaches") into one with real 21st century pizzazz: "Cities of the future."

That's still possible. This super-regional dating game has only just begun.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Waiting for Tampa and Orlando's royal wedding 04/29/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 29, 2011 9:52pm]
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