TAMPA — Competition in one form or another shapes much of the 2019 policy agenda at the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Next October, for example, the chamber will take a local delegation to Charlotte, N.C. for a bench-marking trip with a twist. The focus, chamber president and CEO Bob Rohrlack says: "to see how they try to compete with us."
On Thursday, the Tampa Bay Times sat down with outgoing chamber president Steve Bernstein, a partner in the Tampa law office of Fisher Phillips, incoming chairman Jamie Harden, CEO of Creative Sign Designs, Rohrlack and chamber senior vice president for strategy Josh Baumgartner to talk about the chamber's focus for the coming year, the future of the Tampa Bay Rays and more.
What are the chamber's policy priorities this coming year?
Harden: We're going to put more of a spotlight on workforce development and workforce housing. We had about a five-year program called Education Connection that connected businesses with our universities and really focused on internships. We're going to ramp that up to also pull in apprenticeships, co-ops and make sure we're connecting at the job training centers, at Hillsborough Community College and the Hillsborough County school system.
Unemployment now is 3 ½ to 4 percent, and it is really hard to get a skilled workforce.
From a collegiate perspective, we want to make sure we're keeping the best kids here. We don't want to be an exporter of that talent. We're going to partner with Saint Leo University, the University of Tampa, the University of South Florida, Hillsborough Community College and Florida Polytechnic with a leadership program for five kids from each of those schools.
Affordable housing is really complicated, but we're going to form a study group to see where we can potentially identify key issues where, over the years to come, we might be able to have an impact.
In light of the Tampa Bay Rays' announcement that there is no viable plan for the proposed Ybor City ballpark site, where does baseball fit into your agenda?
Rohrlack: This is not going to be a smooth process. It never is. Our position is still, keep the Rays in Tampa Bay. We're optimistic and hopeful that a solution can be identified, but we're also realistic that it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of trust and cooperation among all the players to get to that point.
Bernstein: We want to see the team working collaboratively with our City Council and our County Commission. They need to work together on this. And ultimately that takes precedent over anything else. We see signs of that. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this region is ready to invest in itself. You might ask what does the ballpark have to do with the transportation and education referenda in Hillsborough, but there's a lot of common threads there. The region is poised to finally accept the fact that we can be great if we just invest in ourselves, and the Rays have to know that this is a region worth investing in. I don't think that's lost on them.
Of course, like any party to a negotiating process, they're going to send signals to the other side from time to time, and that may be well what we're dealing with here. Ultimately, whether it's the announcement on the Rays' site or the lawsuit that recently hit the news on the (transportation) referendum, I think we view these as blips on a screen, but the upward trajectory is undeniable.
Now that the transportation sales tax has passed, is this still on the chamber's policy agenda, and if so, what do you do next?
Baumgartner: While we have supported this new investment in transportation in Hillsborough County, those dollars don't replace funding at the state and federal level. This is a matching opportunity. We were told on our trips to Tallahassee and Washington D.C. that until your community is ready to invest in itself, don't come to us for matching dollars. We have done that now. Now it's our opportunity to use that leverage. And we continue to look at the long-range vision plan with the Metropolitan Planning Organization. That's going to be the guiding document to these projects.
As far as specific projects, we have supported the MacDill ferry. We also know that there needs to be some significant investment in east and south Hillsborough County to make sure those serving at MacDill can circulate in that part of the county if there is indeed a ferry site identified in the coming months.