Bruce Katz, the Brookings Institution's globe-trotting guru who believes cities are the innovation engines that will drive the 21st century economy, stopped by Tampa and Hillsborough County for a few days this past week to see how we're doing and dispense some advice.
In a whirlwind of visits with Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, downtown revivalist and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and other area leaders, Katz was escorted by tour guide Mark Sharpe.
A former U.S. Navy officer, county commissioner and now energetic CEO of the Tampa Innovation Alliance — the young organization determined to revitalize the broad swath of stagnant neighborhoods surrounding the University of South Florida — Sharpe had invited Katz to share some insights at what turned out to be a boisterous and enthusiastic first annual meeting of the Sharpe-led Alliance held Thursday evening at MOSI, the Museum of Science and Industry.
Want old meets new? The gathering rocked to such hits as the '60s song Wooly Bully belted out by a fine USF student singer backed by the USF digital quintet "Touch" playing iPads converted into musical instruments.
With an evangelist's fervor, Sharpe revved up a well-attended audience of several hundred business and public leaders, entrepreneurs and community activists before introducing Katz. Sharpe called him someone who "sees value" where others do not.
At the podium, Katz said the USF area alliance represented the "50th self-declared innovation district" he has seen in the past year, adding that he has "never seen so much energy in a room."
As Katz sees the future, innovative cities and metro areas will become the leaders of the U.S. economy. He elaborates on this topic in a Brookings book he has co-authored called The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.
Forget the federal government. Its plate is full. Says Katz: "The national government is becoming a health insurance company with an army." Nor are state governments any
better. He calls them "out to lunch" and too often co-opted by political interests.
That leaves cities to do the heavy lifting. But, he emphasizes, cities can also achieve the greatest opportunity to innovate and move the economy forward.
That also means metro areas need to collaborate to get things done.
Katz does a whole lot of these speeches while visiting dozens upon dozens of cities that are all trying to figure out how they can best leverage their assets — be they major universities or community colleges, corporations, entrepreneurs and technology — to the greater good in creating better jobs and a better quality of life.
Katz talks about well-known Research Triangle Park near Durham, N.C., whose distance from any prying eyes in cities was once considered a virtue but now discourages young people from working there. That's why Research Triangle is now building its own downtown of sorts, at least enough so that young, sharp researchers can be lured to live, work and play without long commutes and a dependency on cars.
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Katz also points to Detroit, the bankrupt city, and its promising efforts so far to re-energize at least a small core of the town with smart, dedicated workers and private investment. Over time, he hopes that rebirth will expand.
St. Louis, Denver, Boston and New York are all well on their way with innovation districts, he said.
Just before his Tampa visit, Katz was touring Birmingham, Ala. I had to chuckle at his visit there because Birmingham describes itself in much the same way as Tampa Bay.
Here's how the Birmingham Business Journal reported on Katz's visit.
"Katz mentioned several times the importance of metros coming together and acting as one unit, rather than a group of competing, self-interested fiefdoms. It's an idea that doesn't necessarily require a shift in government structure, but does require more collaboration, something that has been a well-documented challenge in Birmingham for decades."
Birmingham, we feel your pain.
But Katz said something else in Birmingham I wish he had volunteered during his MOSI remarks. He said metros shouldn't waste time in pursuit of an elusive idea or plan that pleases everybody in the region.
"Not everyone has to collaborate. Enough people have to collaborate to get stuff done," Katz said. "I don't believe in perfect."
That's why the Tampa Innovation Alliance bears hopeful watching. At MOSI, each of the big backers behind the alliance — USF president Judy Genshaft, Moffitt Cancer Center COO Jack Kolosky, Busch Gardens chief Jim Dean, new University Mall owner RD Management executive Roger Hirschhorn and Florida Hospital Tampa CEO Brian Adams — spoke briefly to reinforce their commitment to making the Innovation Alliance work. The County Commission is also stepping up with $2 million to help create a strategic plan.
"I am all about action," Genshaft told the MOSI crowd.
"We want every one of you to believe in this vision," Moffitt's Kolosky said. Some 90 members, from the Tampa Bay Rays to the city of Temple Terrace, have recently joined the Tampa Innovation Alliance.
The alliance area is made up of 25,000 acres in the northern part of Tampa bounded by Busch Boulevard, Bearss Avenue and Interstates 75 and 275. The area also includes jurisdictions of Temple Terrace and unincorporated Hillsborough County.
Katz expressed some curiosity over Tampa/Hillsborough's working on "multiple nodes" rather than the more typical single innovation district.
While Katz was in town, Google said it may bring its superfast Google Fiber Internet to Tampa. That can help spur high-level university and corporate research and improve overall connectivity, Katz said.
But he also cautioned that "big infrastructure" matters. Especially transportation. Not just to support a live-work-play idea within an innovation district but to more easily connect the multiple districts being considered to one another.
Yep, there's that darn stumbling block — weak mass transit — rearing its head. Again.
It is also telling that one of Tampa Bay's innovation districts that shows signs of taking shape faster than some others — the St. Pete Innovation District in downtown St. Petersburg — was not mentioned as part of the larger metropolitan effort.
That may have to wait for another day and another visit by Katz.
Sharpe recently opined on his mission in a newspaper column.
"If you travel to the hubs of innovation across this nation and take a hard look at what makes some of the most productive centers of creativity and invention tick, you might notice they have a few things in common: a highly educated workforce, global engagement and diversity, and a culture that supports creativity and invention," he wrote. "And beer. They have lots of great craft beer."
At MOSI, Sharpe more than once praised the opening of a World of Beer location nearby on Fowler Avenue. It's another fresh sign of a place within the Innovation District where people can meet and talk.
Florida Hospital's Adams best summed up the evening, expressing hope that the alliance prevails in its mission so that its success may be highlighted in one of Katz's future presentations.
Contact Robert Trigaux at email@example.com. Follow @venturetampabay.