TAMPA — The political committee calls itself All for Transportation, but a growth-minded slice of Tampa's business elite says passing a 1-cent sales tax increase for road, safety and transit projects is about a lot more than getting around.
It's also about making Tampa and Hillsborough County a place where young professionals want to live, they say, and where new companies want to set up shop and hire those millennials.
"It's an economic prosperity issue and a competitive issue," says Craig Richard, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., the county's corporate recruitment agency.
That's because whenever Tampa recruiters invite an out-of-state company to move or expand here, there's a good chance they'll be asked: How easy is it to get around town? To commute? To get by without a car?
As it stands, the answers to those questions don't help close deals.
"Transportation is always one of those issues that they talk about as one of our weaknesses," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says. "When we talk to these companies about relocating or growing internally, they want to be in the urban core, because they know they need to be where the talent lives."
And not all millennials want a car, Buckhorn and others say, so improving transit helps attract talent, and talent helps attract corporate expansions and relocations.
It's a line of reasoning that has helped All for Transportation raise more than $2.3 million, much of it in six-figure checks from auto dealer and philanthropist Frank Morsani, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, Coastal Construction (the contractor for the Vinik-backed Water Street Tampa project), the Lightning, Bucs and Rays, Sykes Enterprises, Third Lake Capital and University of South Florida benefactor Pamela Muma.
It's also a line of reasoning that makes sense to Brad Cooke, who at 33 is one of the prized millennials the mayor has spent 7½ years trying to bring to Tampa.
Cooke grew up in Tampa, went away to college, and lived in Brooklyn before returning to his home town two years ago with his wife Margaret.
They were pleased to find that they could live downtown — "something that would have been unthinkable when I grew up," he says — and initially lived in the Element before moving to Tampa Heights. They have one car between them, and Cooke says he loves the Downtowner free electric shuttle, rides his bike on the Riverwalk to get to his office downtown, and walks whenever and wherever he can.
It is a lifestyle that the Cookes have staked their business on. Their hybrid architecture and development company does in-fill residential construction in and around downtown for like-minded young buyers.
"They want to be part of a vibrant urban life," says Cooke, who plans to vote for the referendum, "and they want to be connected to those places without always having to rely on their car."
Meanwhile, opponents remain unmoved.
The Tampa-based political committee NoTaxForTracks has raised less than $7,700. Through social media, it criticizes the spending plan, says sales taxes are regressive, hitting the poorest the hardest, and notes that approving the referendum would give Hillsborough the state's highest county sales tax at 8 percent. (It wouldn't be alone, though: Liberty County has an 8 percent sales tax. If Hillsborough voters also approved a separate proposed half-cent for school capital projects, then Hillsborough's sales tax would be 8.5 cents.)
A spokesman for the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the anti-tax advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers, doesn't challenge the idea that millennials want options for getting around town. But he said All for Transportation's plan doesn't include the options they seem to favor.
"We see this as a risky gamble," says Demetrius Minor, coalitions director for Americans for Prosperity-Florida. "We're finding that mass transportation is on the decline, and people are using methods like ride-share — for example, Uber and Lyft — to accommodate their transportation needs, so we see this increase as a solution to a non-existent problem."
If the sales tax, listed on the ballot as No. 2 Hillsborough County Referendum, passes on Nov. 6, it is expected to raise $276 million its first year. Of that:
• 54 percent would go to road and safety projects, including traffic signal upgrades, new intersections, new turn lanes, resurfacing and repair, and pedestrian and cycling improvements.
• 45 percent would go to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority for bus service expansion and improvement. A little more than a third of the money in this category would go toward expanding public transit options. Supporters have proposed doing some sort of mass transit with its own right of way, which could be bus rapid transit, rail or light rail.
• 1 percent would go to the Metropolitan Planning Organization for data collection and analysis, planning and oversight.
"To me, that vote for transportation and that vote for schools is investment in what we're going to look like 20 years from now," Buckhorn says. "Nobody likes to pay higher taxes, and I get that, but you have to make strategic investments in your future and in your infrastructure."
By comparison, supporters say, the proposed plan is more focused on road improvements, the needs of different neighborhoods and helping working-class people get to their jobs than was a sales tax referendum that failed in 2010. That proposal called on spending 75 percent of the money on mass transit, specifically light rail.
"We've never had a plan this balanced," All for Transportation leader Christina Barker says.
In keeping with negotiations that are sensitive and take place outside of public view, local officials and economic development professionals interviewed for this report either could not or would not name any companies that have explicitly rejected Tampa because of its transportation deficits.
But virtually all said they believed those weaknesses helped doom the region's bid for Amazon's new corporate headquarters — especially since Amazon made direct access to rail, trains, buses or subways a core requirement for bidders.
"When we were not able to check that box we knew right away that we were not going to make the first cut," says Rick Homans, CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a business-focused nonprofit that works on regional public policy challenges and has donated $150,000 to support All for Transportation.
"You don't know about all the companies that have passed on Tampa Bay, because, quite frankly, you don't even make the list when they study the data and look at the transit options that are available or not available to them," Homans says.
European executives, in particular, have a hard time understanding that their Tampa-based employees wouldn't have access to the same mass transit here as they do at home.
"They cannot fathom a labor force that just depends totally on automobiles," Richard said.
Over the last year, Richard said he has worked to explain the realities of Tampa's car culture to two European prospects — a French financial services company that is considering Tampa for a 1,200-job business services hub and a German company looking for a place to establish operations with 400 employees.
So far, Richard said, neither has made a decision for or against Tampa.
An executive at a company that recently decided for Tampa said getting around town did not factor into the decision. The global law firm Baker McKenzie announced last week that it will open a 300-employee business services center in Tampa.
The city's reputation for being business-friendly was key, said Baker McKenzie executive Jamie Lawless. The law firm has offices in more than 40 countries, so having an airport with a lot of domestic and international flights likewise was critically important.
But the local transportation network?
It did not play a role, Lawless said.
"We recognize and appreciate the fact that Tampa is very much a driving community," said Lawless, who said she encountered similar issues when she built an office for a previous employer in Los Angeles. "Our focus is typically more on air transportation: How we get from Chicago to Tampa or Tampa to London. That's what's important for us."
At Tampa International Airport, CEO Joe Lopano appreciates the recognition, but he plans to vote for the sales tax.
"We can bring people in at 500 mph, but then they get here and they're stopped," he says. "From a tourism standpoint that is not sustainable. People will not come back if they have a bad time, and from a business standpoint, businesses will not locate here if it takes an hour to get to work."
Vinik has supported All for Transportation with $250,000 of his own money, plus another $200,000 from companies he owns. Over the years he has pitched dozens of companies, including some on the Fortune 500, about moving to Water Street Tampa, the $3 billion mixed-use project he's creating with the Bill Gates company Cascade Investment.
Transportation often comes up in those conversations, he says, and is tied to the ability of employers to find the talent they need.
"For any company, it's all about having the best employees, especially those with millennials and younger workers," he says. "A lot of those individuals don't want to drive cars, and they're looking for alternatives, and the ones that do drive cars don't want to be stuck in long commutes."
So "if we can show a path to a much-improved transportation network in Hillsborough County, it's a significant positive for our ability to recruit companies that are looking for that great place to go," Vinik says.
And if the referendum fails?
"It sends a signal to the marketplace that we're not as progressive as we claim to be," Richard says.
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times
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