Pushing into the second quarter of 2013, Tampa Bay is balancing fresh efforts to support regional entrepreneurs while struggling to understand how both St. Petersburg's once-high-flying Universal Health Care and a backdoored $20 million state subsidy to Digital Domain blew up so badly. Plus, there are new faces running a major tourism marketing agency, a growing public university and a major hospital that just flipped from nonprofit to for-profit. Here are 10 people to watch:
Mark Sharpe, 53
Kudos to this Hillsborough County commissioner who pushed for approval to create a $2 million pool to help area entrepreneurs start a business or expand. These are not public funds to be invested in individual businesses. The $2 million won't go far if used that way. Besides, commissioners are wary to avoid a local version of the "Solyndra" PR mess should any public money appear wasted on a specific startup. Most of Sharpe's pool will sponsor events that bring entrepreneurs together to share ideas. Enterprise Florida, the recruiter of out-of-state corporations, won't help local startups grow and create jobs. Sharpe's fund will. And that goes to the heart of the startup community's chief gripe: Why is Florida so gung-ho to spend taxpayer money to lure businesses from afar when they could be helping those based right here?
Kevin Ambler, 52
This is classic Tallahassee. Digital Domain, a special effects film business founded by James Cameron of Titanic fame and affiliated with Florida State University, wanted $100 million in state money to create 500 jobs in Palm Beach County. Now bankrupt, the company secured only $20 million. And that sum came only via back-door legislative channels, aided by GOP politicians ranging from then-Gov. Charlie Crist to Rep. Ambler, R-Tampa. Ambler's attorney claims his client was not promised any personal benefit in exchange for helping Digital Domain. Yet Ambler quickly became a paid director, while son Jason got hired by the firm for 13 months before its collapse. The state's $20 million never would have been lost if proper channels had been honored. And Kevin Ambler, no longer a legislator, so far has managed to avoid serious scrutiny.
Sophia Wisniewska, 61
Will the newly named chancellor at USF St. Petersburg be just the latest in a flurry of short-tenured chiefs at this school, or will she sock in to make a longer-term difference? From a business point of view, USF St. Petersburg has the potential to become a major economic engine for the city, just as USF Tampa president Judy Genshaft made the far-larger USF mother ship one of the more powerful job and innovation generators in the region. Where will Wisniewska focus her influence?
David Yates, 53
So how much economic leverage can a tailless dolphin named Winter supply to a planned $160 million downtown Clearwater quest for a high-end aquarium? Yates, CEO of the aging Clearwater aquarium where Winter now resides, is confident Winter's buzz — amplified by the tourism hype from the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale — will propel attendance at a new aquarium to a whopping 2.5 million in 2017, its first year. That's a million more people than all the people who watched the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in 2012.
Akshay "AK" Desai, 55
The influential doctor and CEO of downtown St. Petersburg's now-bankrupt Universal Health Care insists everything was on the up and up at his once-booming business. But that declaration of innocence did not stop the recent FBI raid or save more than 800 employees' jobs last month. It's a bitter economic blow for downtown St. Petersburg, and a once-confident Desai now faces allegations of fraud and embezzlement. This could turn ugly.
Jennifer Metz, 31
She's the first employee in downtown Tampa's First WaVE Venture Center, serving as program director of its accelerator program for business startups and right-hand helper to center founder Linda Olson. No stranger to entrepreneurs and economy-building, Metz holds a USF master's degree in business with a focus on entrepreneurship, plus Certified Economic Development (CEcD) and Certified Incubator Manager titles. She's the center's go-to for daily operations, from recruiting the best startups, mentors and interns to seeking grants to help ensure the center's long-term sustainability. She vets the second accelerator class this coming week. Buckle up.
Santiago Corrada, 49
To those tracking Tampa Bay & Co., the Tampa/Hillsborough tourism promotions agency, it comes as little surprise that the chief of staff to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is its new CEO. The organization's last brainstorming meeting I sat in on — a discussion of its ambitious regional branding project based on the "Seize Life Daily" positioning statement — was made to its executive committee that includes Corrada. So he's already up to speed on most issues. And unlike predecessor CEO Kelly Miller, who bailed on the job after one year, Corrada already is a known and respected leader in this community.
Peter Bradford, 70
It's one more sign that Tallahassee legislators are scared to ruffle the feathers of the state's big power companies. Former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Bradford testified last month that Florida's 2006 law that lets utilities charge customers now for nuclear plants that may never be built actually shifts risks to utility ratepayers and away from investors and stockholders. This coming week, state legislators will ponder some timid tweaks to that 2006 law that's proved an insult to capitalism and a free market. Too bad state lawmakers did not listen to Bradford, a Vermont Law School adjunct professor, back in 2006. Will they listen now?
Kathryn Gillette, 58
The new CEO of St. Petersburg's Bayfront Health once described how, while skydiving, she jumped out of an airplane only to pass out from the change in equilibrium. She also said she'd be an emergency room doctor if she could pick any job, and called "strategic planning" her best business talent. Gillette, succeeding longtime Bayfront chief Sue Brody, may need to call on all those diverse talents and aspirations now that the once-nonprofit Bayfront is now the regional anchor for its new majority owner, the for-profit Health Management Associates of Naples. Gillette's past dozen years in leadership at a few Florida hospitals owned by for-profit HCA should prepare her well for the more demanding bottom-line focus at Bayfront.
Larry Langebrake, 54
Just over three years ago, I sat down to talk with Langebrake who, as SRI International's new chief in St. Petersburg, had just opened a new waterside facility. The Tampa Bay Times headline for that story: Big things expected from hush-hush, high-tech SRI. His SRI unit here does plenty of defense industry work and shares few details. So it's refreshing that SRI's push to introduce and expand its SunBay Digital Math method to more effectively teach math in public schools is gaining backers. For starters, the Helios Education Foundation says it will invest $1 million to seed a Center for Digital Learning. This is the type of contribution we always hoped SRI would start to deliver.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]