Thursday, September 20, 2018
Business

Longtime business leader, philanthropist Frank Morsani sounds off on Tampa Bay economy

Frank Morsani, successful Tampa auto dealer and a leading area philanthropist, decided to pursue his recent book with two messages in mind. The first is to find ways to be inspired and to face adversity head on. The second message is the to realize the importance of giving back to your community.

Frank and his wife, Carol, have given back in many ways. Five years ago, the University of South Florida named its medical school the Morsani College of Medicine after receiving a record $20 million. That gift brought the overall generosity of the Morsanis to USF to $37 million. Earlier, in 1996, the couple gave $5 million to Tampa's Straz Center for the Performing Arts, prompting the naming of Carol Morsani Hall.

The couple last year sold their Tampa home and moved north to Brooksville in Hernando County. Frank keeps an office in Tampa and a hand in business and nonprofit community affairs.

Frank Morsani will discuss his life experiences and offer some thoughts on current events at the upcoming Times Festival of Reading. His book — To Be Frank: Building the American Dream in Business and Life — was co-written with writer Dave Scheiber.

To say Morsani has come a long way is an understatement. He grew up in Arkansas during the Depression Era in a home without electricity or indoor plumbing.

Morsani spoke in an interview on Friday with Tampa Bay Times business columnist Robert Trigaux. Here are some highlights of that conversation.

When you gave $20 million to the USF Morsani College of Medicine, it was before plans emerged to move the school to Jeff Vinik's project downtown. Did you have concerns?

I am a big believer in a liberal arts education so I had some initial concerns about how the college would remain interconnected. But after I got more information, it made sense given the college's ties to the clinical work it does at Tampa General Hospital. I am excited about it.

The last time we sat down was in 2011 when USF's College of Medicine was about to unveil your generous gift and the renaming of the school. Just to be up to date, have there been other major gifts since then?

We continue to do things but our major commitments are public knowledge. We have not made any additional big gifts. (Morsani laughs.) We're busy paying off the commitments we've already made.

You've witnessed the evolution of Tampa Bay's economy over many decades. Are you pleased with its direction?

The regional economy has been very dynamic. It used to be dominated by the banks, but that has changed. You never know what your base in the community may be. Florida will always be a spoke on the wheel and will never be a hub like Dallas or Denver or Atlanta. We are working hard to be a diverse economy, but I think it will always be a service economy.

We do not need to apologize for that, but we should educate for that. I think we are moving in the right direction. It is not always easy to identify the engines of prosperity.

You've witnessed a lot of elections in this country, though even you might agree this presidential race has been different. What's your take?

We are all uncomfortable with this one. What do we have on our hands?

We are a great nation, one that overcomes adversity.

I still think most Americans are centrists by and large. The political pendulum swings one way and then another before it finally comes back. That is our heritage.

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