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Pinellas transit talk shifts to private advocacy campaign

"Where's the money?"

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority president Brad Miller is getting that question all too often these days, and frequently from people who support and are fretting over the future of mass transit.

Pinellas County is 18 months away from asking voters to approve an ambitious overhaul of the transit system, including a sales tax increase for light rail and expanded bus service. A consultant it hired to study its bus system is still working on a final report. And the public awareness campaign it paid a Tampa public relations firm $300,000 to design has not been officially sanctioned.

But among business leaders, speculation has begun over who will fund, and be the face of, a private campaign.

"People are always asking me, 'Well, where's the Pam Iorio?' " Miller said, referring to the central role the former Tampa mayor played in Hillsborough's unsuccessful 2010 transit referendum.

"Why haven't you started raising money in a campaign?" is another constant, he said.

Impatience from the business community is not necessarily a negative, said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. Though some criticized the commission for voting in February to reserve a place on the November 2014 ballot for the transit tax two years before residents will go the polls, Welch said the goal was to create a sense of urgency.

"This is what we wanted," he said. "This is why it was important to set the date so that folks knew we had a timetable."

The groundwork is being laid for the group that will eventually take on the job of fundraising, said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce.

By December, he and others expect that Pinellas chambers of commerce, Realtors, and business leaders will debut a pro-transit campaign to promote light rail and other transit changes. By then, the County Commission likely will have voted to put the transit tax referendum on the ballot, giving donors with deep pockets assurance that they are entering a real debate.

But first, Clifford and others are waiting for Greenlight Pinellas, the public education campaign created by Tucker Hall, to get off the ground.

"People who are saying 'Why don't we have a campaign?' really don't understand you have to educate the people first and that's going to come from the agencies and the government entities," said Stuart Rogel, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership.

Rogel's group led the advocacy campaign for Hillsborough and knows its pitfalls. The commission waited too long to set a date for the referendum. By the time a private campaign got off the ground, it was trying to teach business leaders about the transit plans while simultaneously asking for checks.

In Pinellas, the Tampa Bay Partnership most likely will work with other organizations, rather than being out in front, Rogel said.

It's too early to know who will take the lead in fundraising, but rail advocates said they will look for someone with ties to the business community and government, such as Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority, or Frank Hibbard, the former mayor of Clearwater.

From the pool of elected officials in the county, it's unlikely a figure like Iorio will emerge, Welch said.

"We are not Hillsborough, we have 24 cities and the unincorporated areas, so we need multiple leaders and we have multiple leaders, which is a good thing," he said. "I think that's the Pinellas way, it's collaborative and that's what works for us."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727)893-8779.

Pinellas transit talk shifts to private advocacy campaign 04/13/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 12, 2013 5:27pm]
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