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Pursuing workplace talent, Tampa Hillsborough EDC targets young entrepreneur needs

Some of Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.’s leaders take a selfie at their annual meeting last fall. Leading the 2016 EDC are chair Colleen Chappell, bottom left, and interim CEO J.P. DuBuque, center. Also shown, clockwise from left, are Ron Vaughn; Rick Homans; Gray Swoope; Yvette Segura; Keith O’Malley; Plant City Mayor Rick Lott; Paul Anderson; and Joe Lopano. Rhea Law is behind DuBuque in white.
Published Feb. 2, 2016

TAMPA

The chief job-recruiting arm of Tampa and Hills­borough County is riding a traditional wave of big-name corporate expansion, from Bristol-Myers Squibb to Johnson & Johnson, with many more deals in the pipeline soon to be announced.

Why rock the boat?

In what might seem a counter-intuitive move, the leaders of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. are about to reach out to young entrepreneurial companies operating in this area and ask:

What can we do to help you grow and — more to the point — stay in this market?

The goal, EDC leaders say, is to identify and open a dialogue with the best and brightest millennial minds in the market.

"All roads lead to talent, which is so important for economic development," says Colleen Chappell, the CEO of the Ybor City-based ChappellRoberts marketing firm and this year's chair of the EDC. While the EDC will still avidly pursue big corporate relocations, she says reaching out to millennial talent and area entrepreneurs is an important step in shaping the next economic development era for the Tampa/Hillsborough market.

EDC leaders Chappell, interim CEO J.P DuBuque and marketing/communications vice president Michelle Bauer sat down with the Tampa Bay Times at the EDC's downtown Tampa offices last week to discuss the group's strategy for ensuring quality jobs here in the future.

The EDC will commission a study of what young adult millennials and entrepreneurs are looking for in their community, what they like and what seems to be missing. The results will be shared with local government and community leaders with the hope that some steps can be taken to make this market more attractive to talented young people to stay and prosper.

As a starter, the EDC plans to meet this week with a group of 10 area entrepreneurs of young companies that were started here but have grown enough to have revenues, employees and customers. Among those meeting with the EDC are Omar Soliman and Nick Friedman, founders of College Hunks Hauling Junk; Saxon Baum and Taylor Wallace of WeVue; and co-founder Roberto Torres of Black & Denim.

The EDC leaders believe the organization can help such companies, perhaps by introducing entrepreneurs to willing executives of major area corporations. That kind of access could mean opportunities for mentoring, networking or even testing (and getting feedback on) new products and services.

"We are serious about making this an EDC initiative, not just a project," Chappell says. "We are taking the long view because this will take time. We want to be a connector."

Bauer, who has worked for a wide array of economic development organizations in the Tampa Bay area, says the broadening of the EDC focus is all about keeping this market competitive.

DuBuque suggests the old-school ways of recruiting big companies with good-paying jobs operating in traditional office space will certainly continue. But the changing economy will mean that kind of job growth will decline as others rise.

"There is a new school of economic development, and we want to be on the front end of it," he says. "Not the bleeding edge," he adds, "but the front end of that economy."

That means the EDC must evolve, DuBuque says, from an office-bound organization to one that thrives by knocking on business doors both in and outside the Tampa/Hillsborough market.

"Right now the economy is hot. The phone is ringing," he says. "But it will not always be the case."

In recent years, the EDC gained the spotlight as a successful job-recruiting group when it was run by Rick Homans. But Homans left the EDC late last year to head the Tampa Bay Partnership. The executive search firm Witt/Kiefer is now working with the EDC board to find a successor to Homans.

Has DuBuque put his name in the race? He's still considering it, he says. "It would be an honor," he adds.

While millennials and entrepreneurs were big topics in the EDC chat with the Times, plenty of other issues are also on the front burner.

• The group formed a task force a year ago aimed at recruiting a corporate headquarters to the area. In late February, an EDC group, accompanied by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller and former Enterprise Florida chief Gray Swoope will visit Connecticut to pitch Tampa to companies the EDC believes may be tired of heavy taxes and, lately, deep snow.

While Fortune 1000 companies remain a prominent target for relocation, the EDC says it is also giving more attention to so-called "Inc. 500" companies, the younger, fast-growing firms known as "gazelles" that might be more willing and interested in relocating to a Tampa/Hillsborough market where they could shine.

"We are a great market for someone who wants to be a big fish in a small pond," Chappell says.

• Five corporate site selectors are coming to Tampa in April to tour the market and offer their perspectives on what they like and matters that need improvement. The EDC hosted a similar event in 2014, with great success. The latest five site selectors, all different from the 2014 group, are scheduled to share their impressions of the area at an EDC breakfast on April 8.

• The EDC was also excited to share the news that a group known as the Industrial Asset Management Council, composed of company site selectors and real estate specialists, will hold its spring meeting in 2017 in Tampa. The IAMC is considered a highly influential group when it comes to corporate relocations. The EDC considers it a rare firsthand opportunity to be able to show off the Tampa/Hillsborough market.

The EDC points out that new data show this market is the No. 1 metro market for job creation in Florida and also one of the lower-cost areas for living. Both numbers are good news for cost- conscious millennials.

"It's a pretty nice spot to be in," Chappell admits, then adds, "but we can't sit back. We must ensure the trend continues."

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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