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My 5 top wishes for a better Tampa Bay business community

'Tis the season. So here's my wish list for a better Tampa Bay business community, one that's suffered through some rough years. I won't be too greedy. There are only five wishes on a list that could grow very long, very fast. But the one I really want, above all others, is this:

Wish No. 1: That the business (and government) communities of the Tampa Bay area — in Tampa and St. Petersburg and Clearwater, and in Hillsborough and Pinellas and Pasco counties, among others — figure out how to act like a cohesive region. Yeah, we talk a good game. Yeah, we're better than we used to be, say, 20-plus years ago. That's when we all spent too much time competing against one another, or simply traded insults like the 1988 classic in a still remembered Tampa Tribune editorial that called the St. Petersburg area surrounding its new ballpark a "pinched Albanian village."

The sniping is mostly gone. But our progress remains sluggish. The defensive walls remain too high. The ongoing inability of this tri-city, multicounty metropolitan area to work together on some big issues remains the most debilitating hurdle to "Tampa Bay" ever taking the next leap as a serious region for business and more cohesive community like a Raleigh, N.C., or an Atlanta.

Tampa has emerged as the region's business headquarters, but it still has a bully streak when dealing with St. Petersburg and Clearwater in matters of regional import. Retirement-centric St. Petersburg is morphing into a community heavy on the arts, unsure of its iconic Pier's future and way too defensive while defiantly holding on to its Major League Baseball team by a thread. Clearwater's clearly the lagging No. 3 leg of our tri-city stool as a tourism and beach destination that participates the least in regional affairs. Getting one city together is tough enough. Herding three to rally for bigger causes is an epic quest.

We've made strides. The Tampa Bay Partnership economic development group tries to think and act regionally, and even has a look-way-ahead project for the area called One Bay. In just the past week, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce board bravely said it will look for ways to keep the Tampa Bay Rays from leaving the area. That's a big step from simply working to convince one of St. Petersburg's main prizes to move over to Tampa.

Also last week, St. Petersburg College president Bill Law said his school was coordinating with community college systems in Pasco and Hillsborough counties to improve regional educational opportunities.

Multiple counties in this area are now, belatedly, looking at fresh ways to coordinate a regional approach to get a regional mass transit system started. The move comes after voters in Hillsborough County last month scuttled an attempt to kickstart a regional mass transit project while the leaderships of Pinellas, Pasco and other counties merely watched. It's no wonder Hillsborough voters said no way.

All good stuff but still the exception rather than the rule. Acting like a smartly run region? We're just not there yet. Many metro areas we compete against, less complex and with one focused downtown, are ahead of us.

The goal is to have our region exceed the sum of its still Balkanized parts. United we stand and move forward. Divided we just fall behind.

Wish No. 2: That Tampa Bay and Florida get its energy act together. Hopes soared when TECO Energy, parent of Tampa Electric, last year said it would buy the solar power supplied by a proposed 25-megawatt solar photovoltaic generating station in Polk County for a 25-year period starting in 2011. It was a progressive, outside-the-box deal, exactly the kind this state needs in order to gain traction for alternative energy options.

By June of 2010, the deal had died thanks to some Neanderthal thinking — a growing specialty of Tallahassee. After the Florida Public Service Commission first approved the deal one year ago, it came back to reject it early this year. Why? The PSC claimed it could not okay any deal that cost more than another conventional power plant — like one run on coal or natural gas.

If that's really the criterion for energy policy planning in Florida, we have little future. That TECO solar project could have been a major leap forward in many ways for the so-called Sunshine State. We've become so myopic in outlook, we're backing ourselves into a corner with few energy options.

Remember, this is the same state legislature bamboozled into approving rules to let power companies raise rates and charge Floridians years in advance for the costs of building new nuclear power plants — plants that still may or may not happen in another decade or so. Other states simply snicker at how Florida lawmakers got played on that decision.

Wish No. 3: That we elevate and celebrate the true innovators of Tampa Bay, those whose qualities of 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration resulted in some real breakthroughs. These are the qualities and talents we should most admire, encourage in others and, most of all, promote in our educational system.

There are plenty of area innovators of all sorts to cheer. How about Dr. Xiaomei Jiang at the University of South Florida physics department who was this year's lead researcher in creating SolarWindow, a spray-on see-through coating applied to windows that can generate solar-powered electricity? How about architect Yann Weymouth of the firm HOK whose vision for St. Petersburg's soon-to-open Salvador Dalí museum created one of the striking new buildings in Florida? What about the arrival in Tampa Bay of TED (Technology Entertainment Design) meetings here to honor "ideas worth spreading" in this region? What about the St. Petersburg startup called SciFlies, an online matchmaker between serious scientific research and consumer funding?

What if we formally celebrated the people behind these ideas and dozens of other quality innovations blossoming in Tampa Bay? What a message of potential it could send, especially to our young people.

Wish No. 4: That the business community give less lip service and more feet-in-the-classroom time to Tampa Bay's struggling public schools. Businesses say they want to help and get involved —and many do. But given the breadth and depth of our business community and its resources, we're barely scratching the surface applying business community resources to making public schools better places to learn.

It's almost bizarre. I rarely covered a business conference or economic development meeting in 2010 without an informal discussion arising about the perilous future of Tampa Bay's workforce. We all hear these same comments. We don't prepare young people enough in math or science to make them competitive. Or I need people who can communicate well and work together in teams, but I can't seem to find them here"

One high-end consulting firm with hundreds of employees here told me this month that, as much as they would like to hire locally, they don't see area graduates who are sharp, well rounded or projecting the kind of work ethic sought by the firm.

So let's change that for the better. Get involved. Adopt a school. Offer internships to aspiring students. Give incentives to your own employees to take time to help at schools.

One more thing. Public schools, get out of your narrow and increasingly budget-stricken silos. Actively recruit businesses to help you. Don't sit there and wait for someone to knock on the school door.

Wish No. 5: That Florida law enforcement get serious about rampant fraud in Florida. After nearly 20 years here of writing about Florida being the "Mortgage Fraud" or "Ponzi Scheme" or "Fill In The Bank Fraud" Capital of America, I'm tired of it. Despite law enforcement PR campaigns about creating fraud task forces to get the bad guys, too often the only ones caught are small-time fraudsters and grifters.

The big guys? Too many operate without fear of arrest or prosecution. When they do get caught, it's often so late that hundreds and sometimes thousands of victims are left devastated. It would be a revelation, perhaps a revolution, to see a genuine crackdown on fraud in Florida. Let some other state become "The Capital" for a while.

Too much to ask? Just five little wishes. Happy holidays.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

My 5 top wishes for a better Tampa Bay business community 12/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 20, 2010 9:49am]
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