A while back, Tampa Bay Chamber sent members on a fact-finding trip to San Antonio, Texas, its first such expedition since the start of the pandemic.
“That was probably the first time 75 of us had gathered for a couple-day period to be together and do some nighttime reconnaissance on other cities,” said Andy Mayts, the Chamber’s incoming chairperson. “That’s always fun for us. The Chamber loves to gather, right?”
They should have more opportunity for that in 2022, when Mayts, a partner at Shumaker, Loop and Kendrick, takes over for Yvette Segura, a regional vice president at USAA.
Segura assumed the top role on the board of the Tampa business advocacy group less than a year into the pandemic, and on the heels of a racial and societal reckoning to boot. Mayts has his own challenges before him, as businesses struggle to hire workers and face the constraints of inflation and a supply-chain slowdown.
“For some small businesses, it’s going to be a really difficult time trying to grow their businesses while also trying to attract and retain quality talent at a price they can afford,” Segura said. “It’s definitely a struggle.”
That said, both Segura and Mayts remain bullish on Tampa’s business growth in the past year and potential for 2022, especially as it relates to a potential new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark in Ybor City. The Chamber recently endorsed the team’s proposal to split upcoming seasons between Tampa Bay and Montreal, and Mayts said he believes the team “will look to us potentially for support in leveraging our relationships with local elected (officials) when it comes to funding opportunities.”
Over Zoom recently, Mayts and Segura talked about Tampa’s business evolution, the return of in-person networking and the odds of a new Rays stadium in Hillsborough County. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
If you polled every member of the Tampa Bay Chamber, what percentage would you say is doing the same or better business today than before the pandemic?
Segura: Wow. That specifically, I’m not sure that I could tell you. What I’ve seen, though, is that over the course of the last 18 months or so, Tampa continually gets recognized for not just the growth that we’re seeing, but from a business standpoint, the growth in small business, the growth in tech. We’re just seeing that flourish in our community. And when you couple that up against the retention rate of Chamber membership — 88, 89 percent — that reflects the street credibility of the Chamber serving the business community during difficult times.
In what ways has the role of a Chamber of Commerce changed?
Segura: Initially, the Chamber had to very quickly pivot — not to overuse a word that everyone uses with the pandemic — to provide programming that was important and relevant. It was tailored to different sizes of businesses to provide them with important, timely information regarding employment in the pandemic, working from home, the changing workforce. As we return to events, we’ve done our work to try to provide hybrid opportunities and figure out what works what doesn’t, and where it’s important to bring people together safely.
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Mayts: There’s a strong indication that people are ready to gather again in a safe way. That being said, just as the terms PPP and EIDL were foreign to us and are probably hopefully now in our past, I think we will stay with some hybrid of the use of technology and the opportunity to gather in person. A quick example is a finance committee meeting that lasts maybe 30 minutes. It’s much more efficient to have everybody remote into that meeting, because a lot of people would spend more time traveling to and from than we would spend in the meting. But when we want to have a real in-depth conversation about a pressing issue, we’re going to try to gather at the table and do that.
Segura: Businesses have all recognized that there’s no checking life at the door anymore. What’s happening in our world is happening in our workforce, and we’ve got to recognize that. The Chamber has done the same to recognize the needs of their employees.
Are we in a transitional period in Tampa Bay? We’ve had some tech companies move in, some larger, some smaller. We’ve also seen Sykes get sold, Kforce sell its headquarters and Primo Water move. Does it feel like Tampa’s business landscape is changing?
Mayts: Yes, but I think that reflects the national landscape. We’re seeing those types of businesses evolve, but we’re also seeing Tampa start to accumulate enough stuff to have boroughs. When you look at New York City, you’ve got the Upper West Side, you’ve got the Village, you’ve got Midtown, you’ve got the financial district. We’re starting to have that type of growth and density that’s allowing places to develop little identities of their own. Ybor’s got a totally different identity. Midtown — who would have ever thought we’d have an REI and all of the growth that’s happening there? The Westshore district is continuing to grow. Even going to a Lightning game now, walking downtown looks totally different than it did just a few years ago, with all the new residential development. I don’t know that it’s Tampa changing as much as cities are evolving.
Segura: The whole region’s changing. The growth we’re experiencing speaks to the quality that comes with this region. We’re a very desirable place that companies look at when they come here. They’re doing searches around the country, and Tampa has a lot to offer, with the workforce being a strong component of that.
Let’s talk about the Rays. How does a split-city plan benefit Chamber members more than a full-season, Tampa Bay-only plan?
Mayts: Losing baseball doesn’t help our Chamber, doesn’t help our city, doesn’t help our region. There’s no doubt that professional sports have a huge economic impact upon the communities in which they play. But there’s an ancillary benefit to professional sports. When you’re at a Lightning game and everybody’s got a blue jersey on, you’re all the same. It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you came from. We all rally around the successes of our sports franchises. The boat parades for the Bucs and the Lightning were unbelievable events, and those all help us come together as a community, especially in times when there’s a lot of strife and polarization.
In terms of the split-city plan, I definitely didn’t get to all 80 home games, by any imagination.
Segura: And oh, by the way, nobody has, right?
Mayts: Nobody. So the number of games is not really a huge impediment to our business community. In fact, having half of a season would allow many more businesses to have half-season support, whether it be seats or suites or other ways. From my understanding in talking with the Rays, they want a community park, where it can be used for other events. Baseball’s one component of it, but it’s also baseball-oriented development and economic development that will be lost if we don’t keep the Rays in town.
What are the odds the Rays are playing part of their season in Tampa come 2028?
Mayts: They’re pretty confident that it’s going to happen there. I think we’ve got pretty good chances.
Will we have an answer at this time next year?
Segura: We’ll be closer.
Mayts: The Rays are running out of options. And they know that although 2028 seems like a long way off, it’s really not that far off for them when you have to look at planning and construction of a new ballpark. So I think we will have an answer this time next year. We do not want to be the town that loses baseball.