100 days in, Tampa Bay Partnership’s new CEO looks to challenges ahead

Bemetra Simmons talks about staying nonpartisan, strengthening Tampa Bay’s workforce and keeping the Rays in town.
Bemetra Simmons, formerly of the United Way Suncoast, has been named CEO and president of the Tampa Bay Partnership.
Bemetra Simmons, formerly of the United Way Suncoast, has been named CEO and president of the Tampa Bay Partnership. [ Tampa Bay Partnership ]
Published Jan. 5, 2022

As a former college athlete, Bemetra Simmons is more than comfortable putting economic and civic success into sports terms.

“People tend to highlight the wins and not so much the losses, but the losses are where you learn,” said Simmons, who played basketball at Christian Brothers University in Memphis. “We absolutely want to celebrate the wins that we have and use that as momentum to build for our region, but we also want to look at where our liabilities lie, so that we can fill in those gaps.”

In September, Simmons took over as CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of regional business leaders whose aim is improving Tampa Bay’s quality of life through research and advocacy. A former banker and chief strategy and operations officer for United Way Suncoast, she’s the organization’s first female and Black CEO, and only its fourth overall.

Simmons has spent her first months meeting with members past and present, “learning a lot and burning up a lot of miles on my car.” And as the group this month prepares its annual regional competitiveness report — a report card of sorts showing how Tampa Bay stacks up to similar markets in metrics like talent retention and economic vitality — she’s preparing to put some of its lessons to work.

“We want to take all that good, rich research that we’ve done,” she said, “and bring that data to life to not only be a good think tank, but to also be a ‘do’ tank.”

On her 100th day as CEO, Simmons sat down over Zoom to talk sports, workforce development and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you meet with former partnership members who are no longer with the group, what’s their reason for stepping away — and what’s your pitch to bring them back?

It runs the gamut. Some of it is purely financial; it just was no longer feasible for their budget to participate. We can all appreciate that, given the big swings that happened in our economy over the last couple of years. Some of them really wanted the partnership to be a lot more political than we are today. And some of them don’t want us to be as political as we are today. I will say I didn’t have a conversation with anyone where I thought the door was closed to them wanting to come back.

The political thing is interesting. We live in this era of hyper-partisanship, where every issue, no matter what it is, has the potential to become politicized. Does that make it harder for groups like yours to operate effectively?

No, I don’t think it makes it harder. Because these are issues that, quite frankly, are nonpartisan. How transportation affects our community, the full spectrum of the talent pipeline, racial equity, wanting to make sure that everybody who lives in our community is having a healthy and fruitful life — those are not partisan issues. The way that we choose to solve them, people can put a partisan spin on that. But those issues themselves are not partisan.

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What’s something you’ve learned in your first 100 days on the job that you didn’t know before taking it?

So many people still think we’re a regional economic development organization. And we haven’t been a regional economic development organization for many, many years now. That’s okay, because at least I’m in the room, and I get a chance to explain that that’s not what we’re doing.

To what degree is economic development even in the DNA of the partnership anymore?

Economic development is everybody’s responsibility to a certain degree. When you’re talking about economic development from a 30,000-foot view, which is having businesses come here, and having businesses that we have here thrive and be able to grow. But we are not an EDO. That’s not what we do.

Rays president Brian Auld is an officer with the Tampa Bay Partnership, and Ybor City real estate investor Darryl Shaw is on the leadership council. Does that preclude the group from participating in discussions about a new Rays stadium?

From the partnership’s perspective, we want to see the Rays remain in the Tampa Bay community in whatever way that makes the most sense for them. In terms of a stadium, we haven’t gotten into specific conversations about that, because that’s a little bit putting the cart before the horse. We need to make sure the Rays are going to stay in Tampa Bay and don’t become the Nashville Rays or the Raleigh Rays or something like that. Professional sports is a big economic driver for our community, and we want to make sure that we explore all options that allow them to stay here.

Sports has consumed a lot of the air in Tampa Bay over the last couple of years, with people pointing to the success of the Bucs, Lightning and Rays as symbols of the area’s growth and emergence on a national level. Do you think that connection is real, or is it overblown?

It’s not overblown. Sports is always a community builder. We’ve seen it in other cities. You look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and then the Saints winning the Super Bowl. It’s a way to remind us of the things we have in common, and to help bring us together. Our opportunity is to take that momentum from the sports world and move it into what we’re doing from a civic and business perspective, and bringing that same enthusiasm, that same collaboration. We can use that same momentum.

Nationally, there’s been a lot made of the challenges in attracting and retaining workforces. How big of a problem is that in Tampa Bay?

It is huge. I haven’t been in one meeting where the workforce doesn’t come up. I don’t care if that’s a business leader, a civic leader, a local elected official. We’re in the process right now of evaluating the full spectrum of the talent pipeline, and it’s something that really has a lot of different levers that need to be pushed, whether it’s up-skilling existing workers, looking at the K-12 (system), what kind of workers we’re going to have 15-20 years from now, what kind of industries we’re going to have, and then the demographics of those workers.

How does the partnership engage the next generation of Tampa Bay business leaders, whether they’re coming from relocated companies or homegrown startups?

Right now, you have four or five different generations in the workforce. They all have different priorities, different things that are important to them, different things they want to see out of the community. And then there are certain things we’re all together on. We want to make sure this is a place that people feel like they can graduate from high school, college, stay here, earn a good living, have a good life, and then their kids stay here, and their kids stay here. We want to be one of those communities not where you feel like to grow and be who you want to be, you need to go somewhere else and come back.