Nobody wants to bungle a major project deemed fundamental to the Tampa Bay region's future health and standing as a metro area worthy of greater national attention. Let's just say that with so much on our plates these days, some important causes lack sufficient attention or — worse — suffer from way too many competing interests.
Do we simply lack the muscle for all this heavy lifting?
Here are 10 critical matters Tampa Bay must not screw up in the coming years. Judging by the grades each project's received so far, we can do a whole lot better.
1. Transportation that works. Our mass transit strategy — how shall I say this politely? — stinks. Hillsborough County's plan bombed a few years ago in a voter referendum, then Pinellas County tried its own version in 2014 with equally disastrous results. Now we seem to be passing this ill-planned dud back to Hillsborough, setting that county up to go 0 for 2.
Anybody who says this area can simply keep relying on more roads clearly does not drive enough around here at peak traffic times. Even if we do build more roads, the clear trend is toward more tolls. Either way, toll roads or mass transit, transportation is going to become more expensive.
But will it become more efficient? Could Tampa Bay actually deliver a regional solution to a regional transportation problem? So far, it's proved a sadly laughable process. Grade: D
2. A viable next home for the Tampa Bay Rays. The small-town pettiness that's infected the debate over the whereabouts of a future baseball stadium should make you wonder if we still really want a Major League Baseball franchise here. St. Petersburg's lasting tunnel vision still limits the Rays from looking broadly across the region for a potential site that might draw more than last-place attendance numbers. Tampa and Hillsborough sound macho enough when insisting they have the sports mojo and real estate the Rays seek. Then they cry pauper when talk turns to a modern-day stadium with a price tag of three quarters of a billion dollars or more by the time the Rays clear the legal quagmire of their Tropicana Field contract. Grade: C
3. Second-chance pier. How often does a community like St. Petersburg get another opportunity to choose a new pier design after so totally fumbling its first attempt? If the project fails this time around from a lack of consensus, the city's reputation will be found languishing in the nearest Dumpster. Grade: C
4. Vinik's downtown rejuvenation tonic. Let's face it. Jeff Vinik's 40-acre urban "work, live, play" real estate redevelopment just south of downtown Tampa is still so new and shiny it lacks the warts and wounds confronting more mature projects. Still, Vinik has street credibility (and money) backed by the even greater credibility of Cascade Investments and (the billions of) Bill Gates. Grade: A–
5. Is that Mark Sharpe or Don Quixote? Suitcase City, home of the transient, never gets much positive ink. It's the turf near Tampa's University of South Florida, the area north of Busch Boulevard to Bearss Avenue and from Interstate 275 east to I-75. Now comes former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the Optimist Kid heading the Tampa Innovation Alliance. His goal, with the blessing and presumably some capital support of nearby giants USF, Moffitt Cancer Center, University Community Hospital and Busch Gardens, is to figure out how to find the resources and passions to upgrade this struggling area. Think of him as Vinik's poor cousin trying to end urban blight. It's early yet and Sharpe might just surprise us all. Grade: B–
6. Mediocre schools = Mediocre workforce. When site selectors and corporate scouts visit Tampa Bay to rummage through our economic drawers, they always look at the quality of this area's schools and workforce. That can be a scary scenario. Our public schools need far more attention than most folks will admit. That means the workforce also needs help. It's happening via many small efforts. They range from science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM), and robotics programs to technology boot camp labs taught by Tech Data and Tampa Bay Technology Forum experts. Most promising are special USF, University of Tampa and area community colleges that increasingly tailor education to reflect the market demand for specialty workers. My latest favorite: In Tampa, USF Business School's brand-new program in Anti-Money Laundering. Grade: B–
7. Who needs OJ? It's been called state agriculture's equivalent to a cure for cancer. Let's hope the recently reinvigorated effort to end citrus greening disease, which is steadily wiping out vast tracts of orange groves, has better luck. The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences said last year it discovered a chemical that kills citrus greening bacteria but might still be years away from a cure. Grade: B
8. Pinellas lacks land management. Pinellas is in an economic pickle. It's so built out that there is little available land of significant size left to develop. Compounding the problem, the county is awash in outdated housing and strip malls. Bottom line: Here's a county that is often unattractive to larger businesses and to younger workers that want to live in new and affordable housing. That's why population forecasts have Pinellas flatlining for decades to come. Not a good economic formula for the future. Grade: C-
9. Inbred energy policy. Tampa Bay (like Florida) grows more and more dependent on natural gas as the fuel to generate electricity. Influential but fearful-of-change monopoly power companies, especially Duke Energy, are fighting against energy efficiency programs and alternative energy like solar power even as recent nuclear power plans have crumbled, at absurd expense to the ratepayers. In Tallahassee, politicians pretend to show consumer concern with recent reforms that — surprise — never get passed. If this was theater, I'd give them an A. But it isn't. We'll regret not fixing this long ago rather than acting as a colony to Big Business. Grade: F
10. Regional cooperation. The idea of "regionalism" often prompts a backlash from local communities who see threats to their self control. Yet more than half the projects on this list could be improved upon, if not solved, with greater regional cooperation of political will, economic ambition and, yes, money. The key is to understand when working at the regional level can really help (see Nos. 1, 2, 6, 7 and 9) and when it's not necessary. Tampa Bay claims it's becoming more regionally conscious. I see modest progress on the best of days and major backpedaling on the worst of days. But good grief — keep trying. Grade: C-
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.