Saturday, November 18, 2017
Business

Tampa Bay business leader, creative advocate Deanne Roberts dies

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The Voice of change is gone.

Business leader and regional advocate Deanne Dewey Roberts, a successful businesswoman, an impressive communicator, single mom and a tough lady who never backed off fresh ideas that at times riled the status quo, died Thursday morning after a four-year battle with a rare form of cervical cancer.

Roberts was 59 and had split her time recently between homes in Maine and her hometown of Tampa. She had recently rented a condo in a Bayshore Boulevard high-rise so that she could look out and see the city she loved and, more to her legacy, was so driven to make better.

"I feel sorry for Tampa Bay," said Michelle Bauer, who called Roberts a mentor and worked with her on many economic development projects. "I do not know who will fill her shoes."

This is not intended to be an obituary but a celebration. I was lucky enough to know Deanne Roberts for many of the 21 years I've been at this newspaper. "Lively" and "passionate" are understated words to describe her.

She was another rare commodity: a woman and a small-business owner who rose against the odds in 2003 to chair the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

With Roberts, I'm reminded of the Jimmy Stewart character in It's a Wonderful Life who gets to see what his hometown would have been like had he never lived.

Tampa would have been much the worse without Roberts. Without her, regional economist Richard Florida may never have visited to tell Tampa Bay in 2003 that creative cities attract talented people and better jobs. The CreativeTampaBay movement that supports creative culture in this area may never have been born.

Without Roberts, Emerge Tampa — she was especially proud of this — the top business networking organization for young adults in their 20s and early 30s may never have materialized. Key regional studies like one called "The Young and the Restless" that offered insights into how to keep young talent in the region were among Roberts' pet projects.

Why do we care? Because the mantra of recruiting and keeping talented young people has infiltrated every major organization here, from the University of South Florida and chambers of commerce to city governments.

"We have lost a vital and unquenchable spirit and energy," Ed Turanchik, a former Tampa developer and mayoral candidate, wrote on a Facebook memorial to Roberts. "She was one of our greatest civic leaders."

Diane Egner, one of Roberts' closest friends, stayed with her (along with St. Joseph's nurse Terry Beitler), around the clock this past week. Egner was by her bedside, with Roberts' sons Kirk and Kent and brother Wayne Dewey, when she died Thursday morning.

Roberts endured a startling 55 rounds of chemotherapy in recent years. Yet she still accomplished a big portion of her bucket list: traveling with her two sons to Europe and St. Petersburg, Russia, and summering in the cool of Maine.

"Deanne planned her death as well as she planned her life," a tired Egner laughed Thursday afternoon. "Last night, she told us she was ready to die and fell asleep around 5 p.m. She woke at 7:30 that evening, exclaimed 'Damn, I'm still alive,' and went back to sleep."

Colleen Chappell met Roberts as a college intern. Chappell grew so close to Roberts that when she bought the public relations business, the new firm became ChappellRoberts — with no space between the names.

"She has been my mentor, friend, counselor, business partner, sister and even adopted mother over the past 20-plus years," said Chappell.

The PR firm's slogan, appropriately, is "We create change." And the changes Roberts championed made Tampa Bay much richer.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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