Tampa Bay is a body of water that rests between our two largest counties. The name is also commonly used to describe the region that spans from St. Petersburg to Plant City and Tampa to Brooksville.
The dual meaning is a bit awkward, and it still irks the diehards who insist that “Tampa Bay” isn’t a place, but we’ve managed to discern the difference for decades.
When local agencies use “Tampa Bay,” the expectation is that they cater to the region. They may be based in one city or another, but they should be equal opportunity. They should be open to customers or clients from around the area. They should promote or market the various parts of our region as fairly as possible. They shouldn’t play geographical favorites.
So it’s no wonder the vitriol that followed the news that the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation is planning on changing its name to the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council. The organization will remain focused on attracting business and trade to Tampa and Hillsborough, but with a misleading name.
After the news broke last week, I heard from 10 local business and political leaders, all of whom thought it was a bad idea. Even the ones who live and work in Tampa said it was a step backward. One said it showcased everything that is wrong with the way some of our organizations work — Balkanized and a little underhanded. Another called it an "obvious power play” designed to poach business from other counties.
The economic development corporation is funded by private businesses and government, including the city of Tampa, one of its biggest investors. City council member Bill Carlson said at a recent meeting that the name change “sends a very aggressive negative signal to the region.” He then persuaded his fellow council members to agree to send a letter to the organization’s leaders asking them to reconsider.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman weighed in with a letter this week saying the name change — along with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce changing its name to the Tampa Bay Chamber — would set back recent improvements in regional cooperation. For too long, there were “trust issues and little collaboration, especially when it came to economic development.” Competing against other regions requires our local economic development groups to work together “without creating unnecessary confusion or distrust,” he wrote.
Craig Richard runs the economic development corporation. He’s smart and earnest and seems like a good advocate for business. But he said last week that he didn’t know why anybody would think his organization was trying to horn in on other local economic development groups. That seemed naive — or cunning.
As Kriseman noted, the area has a history of our two big cities and counties not getting along. They might not be enemies, but the battle scars are visible. It wouldn’t take a doctorate in diplomatic relations to know the name change would be seen as hawkish in some circles.
Critics think the name will confuse out-of-state businesses looking to relocate or open offices in our region. The companies will think they are getting information and expertise about the whole area when what they are really getting is a pitch from one county.
The Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation’s job isn’t to prioritize the best interests of St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, Dunedin or New Port Richey. But it shouldn’t pretend to represent the whole area when it doesn’t. The area needs real cooperation, not a name change dressed up to look like it.
“Tampa Bay” already has two meanings. We don’t need to add another one.