TAMPA — Saying it will boost the city's economy, the City Council on Thursday agreed to bring together local and national officials to work on a plan for improving Tampa's relations with Cuba.
"What needs to happen is a unified, concerted effort," said council chairman Tom Scott. "All parties should come together and map out a strategy."
The council voted to invite Mayor Pam Iorio and representatives of the Hillsborough County Commission, the Tampa Port Authority, Hillsborough County Aviation Authority and the Tampa area congressional delegation to develop a plan.
"It's so obvious that we have an opportunity in our community to generate business for the city of Tampa through this relationship," said council member Linda Saul-Sena.
The measure passed 5-0, with council members Mary Mulhern and John Dingfelder absent.
"We need to get off the dime and get something going. Forget the politics in Washington," said council member Joseph Caetano.
The move came after the council heard from members of the World Trade Center, a Tampa organization that promotes global business; and Al Fox, creator of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.
"Tampa must be more active and more aggressive in becoming a trading partner with Cuba," said Steve Michelini, managing director of the center. "We're not here talking about whether the current administration in Cuba is going to remain or not, but whether Tampa should become more active."
Michelini and Fox said that even with the 48-year-old federal embargo in place, options exist to expand trade of agricultural and other products through the Port of Tampa, and establish direct flights to Cuba from Tampa International Airport.
"This is not a federal issue. This is a local issue," Fox said. "Cuba is open. We're shutting ourselves out."
Tampa port officials have previously resisted efforts to develop a trading relationship with Cuba. Efforts to add direct flights to the island nation from Tampa are ongoing.
Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama eased restrictions on travel to Cuba for Americans with family there.
That prompted U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, to begin discussions with federal officials about bringing charter flights to Cuba from TIA. Currently, only Miami, New York and Los Angeles offer direct flights to Cuba.
In a letter sent last year to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Castor said 66,963 Cuban-Americans call the Tampa Bay area home, making it the fifth largest Cuban-American community in the United States. Cuban-Americans in the Orlando, Lakeland and Sarasota bring the total to more than 100,000.
Based on that figure, Michelini said, flights from Tampa could generate $420,000 a month in airport taxes, as well as revenue for hotels and restaurants.
"All that revenue goes to the economic engine of the Miami/Dade community," he said. "We'd like to see some of that come to Tampa."
Don Barco, owner of the King Corona cigar bar in Ybor City urged the council to do all it can to push for economic relations with Cuba as other cities have done.
"If they can do it, we can do it," he said. "In these bad economic times, Tampa can really use the money. I ask you to keep trying."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.