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From philanthropy to protest, they made a difference in 2011 on Tampa Bay's business scene

In 2011, who really made a difference in the Tampa Bay business community? More folks than you might think. Once again, it's time to boil down the finalists to a small group who stepped up in some big way.

Let's start with a tip of the hat to Carol and Frank Morsani, whose $20 million gift (their largest of several contributions) to the University of South Florida earned them their name this month on the university's Morsani College of Medicine. An even better reason to salute the couple is their hope that such generous giving — and some personal prodding — will motivate other wealthy folks in Tampa Bay off the sidelines. Giving to something worthwhile in their Tampa Bay community sure beats sending all their philanthropy out of state.

Kudos also goes to Jeff Vinik, not only for his rock-solid ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning but for his role in the $40 million refurbishment of the St. Pete Times Forum — which in a week's time becomes the Tampa Bay Times Forum. That's great timing not only for Lightning fans but for the entire Tampa Bay area when, come August, we take center stage by hosting the Republican National Convention at the Times Forum. Heck, Vinik's name was recently floated as a possible investor interested in purchasing the struggling Channelside retail complex.

Speaking of needy retail projects, 2011 brought a buyer to St. Petersburg's long-languishing BayWalk shopping and entertainment complex. Treasure Island developer Bill Edwards already was in the news for helping to refurbish and manage downtown St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater. We'll see if the Edwards mojo can revive BayWalk, even as public attention in town shifts to the three final and, uh, novel designs for a new Pier.

Truth is, 2011 was a year that brought myriad contributions that made a regional difference. Some were monetary. Some were courageous. Some were symbolic gestures. Some were just plain smart.

And the 2011 awards go to . . .

Sharpest Eye in the Recruitment Game Award goes to patent attorney Valerie McDevitt, the assistant vice president in Tampa at the University of South Florida's division of patents and licensing. McDevitt kept a long-distance eye on Manhattan biomedical company IRX Therapeutics (a USF spinoff from long ago) and noticed its lease was up. She called. Why not come back to Tampa Bay? They listened. The rest, with some wooing from USF's Rick Baker and incentives from Florida, is history. IRX is relocating to St. Petersburg.

Don't Bill Us for a Botched Nuke Repair Award goes to J.R. Kelly and Charles Rehwinkel, the two top dogs in the Office of Public Counsel representing Florida consumer interests at the Florida Public Service Commission. They are fighting politically connected Progress Energy, which wants its Florida customers to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to cover a large portion of the expense required to fix botched repairs the power company inflicted on itself at its Crystal River nuclear power plant. Kelly characterizes the issues as a "huge construction negligence case." But he and Rehwinkel face a PSC board that has historically lacked the independence to rule against the big power companies. Hearings take place next year.

Maybe that Debit Card Fee wasn't a Good Idea Award goes to Bank of America's David Darnell, the former Tampa Bay area banker who's now co-chief operating officer at Bank of America. When the public backlash against B of A's ill-timed $5-a-month fee got too nasty, it was Darnell's name attached to the bank's public statement that it was dropping the idea. Darned good move, Darnell.

Next Generation Backbone Award goes to Michael Long, a sophomore at Sarasota's New College of Florida. Long is the lone student representative on Florida's Board of Governors, which faced a bullying power play from state Sen. JD Alexander, who demanded to let USF Polytechnic in Lakeland become independent from the University of South Florida. Last month, Long had the conviction to publicly recount Alexander's private conversation of implied threats against the university system if he did not get his way. Note to Long: Please stay in Florida when you graduate and make things better.

Fastest Growing Company Nobody Knows Award goes to Crystal Culbertson, CEO and founder of St. Petersburg defense business Crystal Clear Technologies, whose $100,000 revenues in 2007 reached nearly $16.5 million in 2010. That three-year growth rate of 16,048 percent earned it the rank of No. 5 on Inc. magazine's annual list of the fastest-growing companies in the country and tops in Florida.

Who Knew a Business Making Forms Was Worth $35 Million Award goes to Kevin Hale, a co-founder of Tampa startup company Wufoo. The business rocked the regional technology and entrepreneurial world last spring when a company with a no-less-bizarre name of SurveyMonkey bought Wufoo for $35 million and then moved it to California. Hale's Tampa experience matters in two ways. First, it's a real example to other area startups that success and wealth are indeed possible here. It's also a reminder that Tampa Bay has to work harder to encourage startups so that more up-and-coming local firms are the buyers, not sellers, in such deals.

Just Because We Protest Does Not Make Us Slackers Award goes to those who participated in the Occupy Tampa, Occupy St. Petersburg and all the related protest efforts in Florida. Sure, protests can be messy and inconsistent. But even those unwilling to listen to what the Occupy "We are the 99 percent" movement is saying should realize that there are big problems — income inequality and a dwindling middle class, for starters — that are not getting the attention they deserve from the nation's so-called leaders.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

From philanthropy to protest, they made a difference in 2011 on Tampa Bay's business scene 12/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 23, 2011 9:13pm]
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