TAMPA — The new name at the Tampa Bay Chamber went live on Thursday, but the focus remains largely the same.
The chamber, known as the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce for more than 70 years, will continue working to help develop talent and facilitate the creation of more workforce housing, said outgoing chamber chairman Jamie Harden of Creative Sign Designs and incoming chairwoman Maryann Ferenc of Mise en Place.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Ferenc and Harden also acknowledged that the chamber could have handled its name change, which alarmed their counterparts in Pinellas County, better than it did.
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Here is the conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Q — This time last year you said you planned to focus on affordable housing and workforce development. How’s that going?
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Harden — At the time, the term we were using was affordable housing. We formed a study group to look at this and found that affordable housing wasn’t really the challenge; it was really workforce housing. There’s a lot of funding mechanisms for (people who make) 60 percent or less of average median income, but there’s a gap (for people making) from 80 to 120 percent.
We met monthly, called on an innovative program in Fort Myers, met with county and city officials and used the year to formulate some ideas. We’re going to focus on trying to start with the city of Tampa looking at initiatives and incentives that could be put in place.
We have not fine-tuned it. One example would be parking. If you’re downtown or very near a transportation hub, reduced parking reduces costs, so that’s definitely an opportunity. We’re also looking at land the city or county might own (to provide workforce housing to) who’s missing out: first responders, teachers and also people who were a lot younger than we expected, typically under 30.
Chamber president and CEO Bob Rohrlack — It’s working people who are contributing but are struggling to get by with what’s going on as the economy has grown.
Q — And workforce development?
Harden — Two things real quick: This year we started a program that we’ll launch next year called Collegiate Leadership Tampa Bay. The idea is to partner with Saint Leo University, the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa to try to get some of the best and brightest and put them through a Leadership Tampa-like program where we can really connect them to the community. Hopefully, that adds some stickiness where they’re going to stay here. That program we think can scale.
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The (second) thing that was enlightening to me and that we spend time around was K through 12. The success rate for kids oftentimes pivots around third grade. We had a number of conversations and will develop future programming on that side of how you’re thinking about that workforce way, way earlier than what we’ve historically looked at. Three years when we looked at workforce, we were looking at retention rates in your our four-year colleges. There’s a view that to have a diverse economy, we’re going to have to have training and mindset changes throughout the system.
Ferenc — Looking at the military programs here, the question was how do we make real impact? The (new) corporate fellows program, which exists in 16 other cities, is a program where people coming out of the military are working within companies and finding out, “Is that going to be my new path?” and be able to try their skills in the private sector and also have some mentoring along with it.
(The first group of 23 fellows, 14 service members and nine spouses, will start in January. Two of the service members will be from MacDill Air Force Base. The rest are coming to Tampa from somewhere else.)
Q — Gotta ask: What do you think of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman saying Wednesday that he offered the Tampa Bay Rays another opportunity to look at bay area stadium sites outside of Pinellas and the team declined?
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Ferenc — We’ll take a look at the Rays again and say, what is the chamber’s role in this? What can we do? What do we need to know first? We’ll caucus it (an internal practice the chamber uses to take initial looks at issues) before we make any decisions. But the chamber has always believed, understood and been supportive of the fact that the Rays are a boon to Tampa Bay. They’re a part of our DNA. They’re a part of who we are as a destination. In many different ways, they have given us a worldwide stage.
Harden — We’re not in the site-selection business. But we think it’s very important that that baseball team remains in Tampa Bay, and we are supportive of whatever that looks like and are very, very hopeful that something can be worked out. This news that’s come out, the next step is to evaluate what does that mean?
Q — How is the Tampa Bay Chamber different from the Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce?
Rohrlack — We think regionally and act locally. Transportation is the over-arching plus for regionalism or is the over-arching negative for regionalism. It has to be worked on from a regional perspective. This (name change) was our looking with our members over a long process of where do we go from here? A lot of our members were calling us the Tampa Bay chamber already.
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We know that there is a little bit of concern. We’re out to prove that there doesn’t have to be concern. We are still the organization that continues to work together. We’re going to prove that with our actions, that we’re in this together. We think we’re a good chamber, but we are not the only chamber and we continue to work with all the chambers.
Ferenc — If there’s anything that’s going to be different, it’s perhaps to have our head lifted up a little bit more to look around and understand what we’re doing in relationship with what others are doing. I think that’s a place where we could have done a better job, need to do a better job of communication, and that’s where we’re going to prove ourselves and work through any of those issues to a shared vision with the entire region but in particular with our friends across the bay.
Harden — Looking back, we thought we had more time to get the strategic communications plan locked down, to have regional conversations about decisions that we were making. Unfortunately, word got out along with was was also happening at the EDC (the economic development corporation, which changed its name from Tampa Hillsborough to Tampa Bay).
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Q — That wasn’t coordinated?
Harden —Absolutely, 100 percent not.
Ferenc — Crazy as that seems.
Harden — With that said, if I was in the other chair, I could sure see how it feels like it was. And it was not. We should have had the mindset that word would get out tomorrow and had more preparation for that. We were unfortunately not in the position to have the forward conversations that we wanted to. There was nothing malicious about it.
Ferenc — We own that as an organization, and we’re willing to face that music, because we believe that only in facing the music do you get through that and come out the other side to what we still believe is the way to go and is our future as a region, and that we want to use all the assets that we have for the region.