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Tampa Bay economic development groups surge, but Enterprise Florida is a concern

Why does it feel like everybody in regional Tampa Bay economic development is swigging Red Bull these days? Key groups dedicated to recruiting more businesses and better jobs are busy unveiling energizing initiatives and new leadership.

But what's rising fast here is fading just as quickly at the state level. Enterprise Florida, the state's chief business recruiter, has been without a chief executive officer and mired in mismanagement claims since the spring.

The bottom line? Enterprise Florida's future as a powerful player in bringing new jobs to this state is very much up in the air.

Welcome to the latest highs and lows of Florida job recruiting.

The good news is the recent gains at the Tampa Bay level are all aimed at making this regional metro market a less scattered and more respected player on the national economic scene. Among the highlights: • An on-purpose implosion was followed by the October reintroduction of the Tampa Bay Partnership. The 20-year-old-plus regional marketing group unveiled itself this past week as an economic development organization committed to political advocacy, regionwide mass transit goals, and the creation of fresh economic performance indicators that will let Tampa Bay better measure its progress on a broader community scale.

Longtime business leader Rhea Law, Florida head of the Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney law firm in Tampa, will be the first chairwoman of the new Partnership. She brings more regional development experience and understanding than most folks, having chaired nearly every area economic development group — including the old Tampa Bay Partnership back in 2002. She's kick-starting the new and now privately funded Partnership. Its governing body of area CEOs is flush with relative newcomers, from Lee Evans of Bristol-Myers Squibb to Troy Taylor of Coca-Cola Beverages Florida.

"I really embrace change," Law said in an interview. The Partnership's initial focus is on finding a way forward on Tampa Bay mass transportation, an effort headed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Vology chief Barry Shevlin.

Rather than get mired — as Tampa Bay has done time and again — in single county mass transit battles, the Partnership is embracing a regional study by the state Department of Transportation. That plan is exploring how to link Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties in one transit system. That will become the basis for Tampa Bay to apply for federal transit administration matching funds to help pay for such a project.

"It is important the Partnership be involved in key issues from day one and that Tampa Bay speaks with one voice," Law said. "We have seen what happens when that does not take place." • Another economic development group to watch is the Tampa/Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., which will celebrate its annual meeting this Tuesday. Chairing the EDC in the coming year is Hillsborough Community College president Ken Atwater. He has long played a major role in shaping HCC's resources so students can pursue degrees and programs that reflect the needs of area businesses, from manufacturing to medical lab tech training.

The annual meeting takes place on a recruitment high note, gathering less than a week after the official opening of Johnson & Johnson's new North America Global Services Center. The EDC played a key role — along with state and local incentives — in J&J's choosing to expand here.

In an interview Friday, Atwater said his leading HCC and stepping into the EDC role for the coming year is a natural fit. "We are influential in establishing the pipeline of the workforce for any industry coming here."

Talk about a contrast.

While regional economic development is in full swing, statewide efforts struggle for direction. Enterprise Florida is seeking a new CEO and is down to two candidates. Michael Finney led Michigan's economic development efforts from 2011 to 2015. Richard Biter is a former senior logistics adviser with the Florida Department of Transportation.

In the near term, it may not matter who gets picked. Enterprise Florida will again face off with the state Legislature over funding tax incentives used to lure business. Last year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott requested $250 million and was refused. This year he wants only $85 million. The initial response from Rep. Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes, who becomes House speaker after the elections? Not on my watch.

"There will not be any corporate welfare in the House budget," Corcoran said.

At the Tampa/Hillsborough EDC, Atwater acknowledged there is concern that local business recruiting could be affected if the role and resources of Enterprise Florida remain in limbo.

"It's like losing a tool in a competitive business," he said.

As for Tampa Bay's fresh momentum? Another round of Red Bull, please.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

Tampa Bay economic development groups surge, but Enterprise Florida is a concern 10/21/16 [Last modified: Friday, October 21, 2016 5:50pm]
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