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  1. Business

Leaders of Tampa Bay's biggest public companies cite mass transit as priority

STEVE MADDEN | Times
Published May 12, 2014

As the corporate titans of Tampa Bay, they run companies that demonstrate the diversity of the region's workforce.

Selling laptops in Europe; building electronics and other goods out of more than 50 factories from Poland to Vietnam; providing Medicaid and Medicare plans to millions; operating one of the top independent brokerage firms outside Wall Street.

Yet when the leaders of the region's 10 biggest public companies were asked what Tampa Bay should do to improve its business climate, a majority echoed the same suggestion: make it easier for people to travel between work and home.

"It's hard to get around Pinellas and Hillsborough if you don't have a car," said Mark Mondello, CEO of Jabil Circuit. "Compared to Chicago, Dallas, L.A., Boston … it's night and day. If we're going to attract progressive types of workers and progressive types of corporate businesses, mass transit is an issue."

Bob Dutkowsky, CEO of Tech Data, the area's biggest public company by revenue, said businesses will continue to have trouble luring top talent unless the community invests more in roads and bridges, as well as mass transit.

"When people ponder if they want to move to Tampa Bay, they ask, 'Can I get to work from my house?' " he said. "We're blessed to have one of the beautiful places on the planet, but we have to make that more accessible. … It needs to get better if we're going to keep up … whether it's (investing) in roads or buses or light rail.

"We have the greatest airport in the world, and we just have to make sure you can get to that world-class airport."

TECO Energy CEO John Ramil said the bay area has stepped up before, cooperating across city and county boundaries to fix issues like available water. It should do the same, he says, to tackle transportation woes.

"There is no silver bullet to fix this growing challenge, but we can work together to improve it," he said. "We need to plan for the future. Which roads will be key in decades to come? How can we adapt mass transit to improve traffic? How can rail augment our existing mass transit in a sensible way?"

Interest in mass transit has ebbed and flowed through the years, but there has been neither the political will nor community push for making costly investments.

That could be changing. Both Ramil and Raymond James CEO Paul Reilly point to growing support for Greenlight Pinellas, an initiative on the ballot in November that would replace property tax revenue earmarked for transit with a 1 percent sales tax to fund dramatically increased bus service and future passenger rail service linking downtown St. Petersburg, the Carillon area and downtown Clearwater.

Reilly said his brokerage firm supports Greenlight Pinellas "because we understand that the most successful metropolitan centers rely heavily on public transportation to put talented workers together with the business community. Education and transportation are critical to Tampa Bay's long-term business future."

Executives cited several other pressing issues to stimulate the business climate. Among them: improving ties between local businesses and universities; getting more national and international flights out of Tampa International; and finding a way to keep major-league baseball in Tampa Bay.

Dutkowsky of Tech Data, however, indicated the region should take heart that its promise trumps its problems.

That's why, he said, Tech Data recently decided to expand its headquarters in Tampa Bay.

"Putting a new building in the ground is a massive commitment. … We could have moved somewhere else (but) we chose to stay," he said. "We can be really critical, but we should step back and realize we have a lot of good things here. … That's why we doubled down and invested in Tampa Bay."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3434.

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