The Tampa Port Authority's governing board will begin the process Tuesday of selecting a successor to the departing chief executive, Richard Wainio, who leaves this fall. The community has a major stake in who runs this regional economic engine, and the board should commit to a thorough and open national search.
Wainio leaves the port in a strong position after seven years as director. Florida's busiest cargo port is diversifying into the cruise business, and more than a half-billion dollars in road work, rail, terminals and other capital improvements are readying the port for new opportunities as the economy recovers. The port also plays a major role in developing downtown Tampa's waterfront Channel District, a dynamic area with condos, restaurants, retail and sports and concert venues. As the owner of the land under the Channelside entertainment complex, it has a final say over which development company will soon take over the property.
The next director will wear many hats as port executive, urban planner and civic booster. The CEO needs to provide a vision for the port, balance the cruise and cargo business, and manage the oft-competing needs of dozens of private companies that lease port facilities. The next director needs to appreciate how port decisions impact downtown and waterfront development, and the economics of the region. And Wainio's successor will need to have the standing Wainio did among his colleagues in the industry to grow Tampa's profile on a global stage. One important initiative to build on is the partnership Wainio arranged with the gulf ports of Houston and Mobile to capture new business from the increase in traffic through the expanded Panama Canal.
The port board can lay the basis for a solid transition by undertaking a national search for a new CEO. The board needs an experienced recruiter who knows the industry landscape and who can match the talent pool with the direction the port is taking. The search needs to be genuinely open — not national in name only. Hillsborough County has a history of using executive searches as little more than cover to throw the jobs to home-grown candidates. Any whiff of politics or favoritism will stain the process, and it surely will spread through the industry grapevine.
The search provides the board an opportunity to step back and assess Tampa's strengths and its outlook for the future. And it will give candidates a crash course in the accountability that comes with running a public agency in Florida. The board should strike out with a process and a tone that will attract a strong, diverse candidate field. And the board should focus on getting the right person in place even if the port needs interim leadership for a few months.