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Tampa Bay Partnership 2.0: To meet regional challenge, economic advocacy group reinvents itself

Rick Homans, the new CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, is leading an effort to re-invent the group's leadership. SKIP O'ROURKE | TImes


Published Jun. 23, 2016

As Tampa Bay struggles to meet growing regional challenges, the need is greater than ever for a reinvigorated economic development group that can transcend parochial city and county borders.

So goes the argument of business leaders who fear this metro-wide area lacks a clear and influential regional voice when it comes to driving real progress on major initiatives from transportation, workforce talent and education to entrepreneurship and marketing.

Meet Tampa Bay Partnership 2.0. The regional economic development group is about to be reinvented.

What will be different? The Partnership plans to end its public-private structure and instead be run exclusively by a "council of governors" consisting of up to 40 CEOs of major companies based or operating here who would pay $50,000 a year to serve on the board. A second-tier "leadership council" of another 40-plus senior area executives will pay $25,000 a year to participate.

All government-related organizations, from county commissions to cities to universities to metropolitan planning organizations, will be invited to join a "stakeholders council" to meet and communicate often on key regional issues. But they will not be charged. And they will no longer provide funding to the group — an attempt to end a perceived conflict of interest of the Partnership relying on taxpayer funds.

"The big issues have to be addressed at a regional level or you are simply not going to make much progress," Rick Homans, the Partnership's CEO since January, said in an extensive interview. "If you do this city by city or county by county, you will only get so far."

On Friday morning, the current board and leadership of the 22-year-old regional economic development group meets in downtown Tampa to vote on dissolving the Tampa Bay Partnership in favor of a clean slate.

Once Friday's expected formal board approval takes place, the organization aims to unveil itself as a brand new organization by October. "There will be no sacred cows," Homans promises.

The argument for regional leadership to rally a balkanized metro area has been around for decades. That's why the Tampa Bay Partnership was first born back in 1994 to try and elevate regional cooperation on major economic challenges.

In the last 22 years, the Partnership racked up some wins but also some losses. Recently it had begun to fade in influence and focus, spurring the recruitment of Homans.

Lately, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties as well as top cities Tampa and St. Petersburg claim they are more willing to work together to benefit the greater good. But too many of their organizations — county commissions, city mayors, school systems, chambers of commerce and job recruiting EDCs — are beholden by local funding and by mission statements to put their own interests first.

Can a completely overhauled Partnership deliver on some of the pressing regional needs?

Homans is the first to acknowledge the challenges ahead. He anticipates some "heavy lifting" ahead on issues like mass transportation, which has suffered multiple voter rejections in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in recent years.

This spring, the Partnership pushed hard in its support of TBX, the Tampa Bay Express — a massive $6 billion road project that will add toll lanes to this region's interstate system. The group sent a letter signed by 60 area CEOs endorsing TBX. The transportation plan was approved 12-4 by the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization in the early hours of Thursday morning.

At the top of Homan's to-do list is to recruit those CEOs to the new Partnership who offer both the clout and diversity to win the respect and attention of area legislators, government officials and residents. He cites several CEOs with long Partnership ties who are "all in" and will personally participate in the governing body of the new group.

Chuck Sykes, CEO of Tampa's Sykes Enterprises, is one who has a strong record of area leadership. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is also on board, and he is bringing along his Strategic Property Partners real estate development arm that is partnered with billionaire Bill Gates' Cascade Investment firm. Another committed CEO we seem sure to hear more about is Troy Taylor, who heads the recently assembled and fast growing Coca Cola Beverages Florida. The Tampa firm is the only African-American owned Coca-Cola bottler. Regional bank presidents Brian Lamb, who is also African-American and heads Fifth Third Bank in North and Central Florida, as well as SunTrust's Allen Brinkman, are also expected to join the new board.

What's the top priority for CEOs to join? "Most important is that they have a regional view," Homans said.

But to really gain the gravitas Homans seeks for the new group, he hopes the CEOs of the four Fortune 500 companies in this market can be convinced to join. Those names include Bob Dutkowsky of Tech Data Corp., the largest public company in Tampa Bay based on revenues. Also on the wish list: Mark Mondello of global electronics manufacturer Jabil, WellCare Health Plans' Ken Burdick, and perhaps even Raymond James Financial's Paul Reilly.

Such CEOs would add prestige and leadership depth, Homans says. On the flip side, their absence would be noticed as the new organization seeks to establish its leadership role in larger-scale regional matters.

Homans says he can be patient, but he will be calling on these and other area executives. "If we have an influential, respected group of business leaders weighing in and reinforcing how important these issues are to the region, then I think we have a chance of moving forward."

Homans was recruited in 2012 to run the job recruiting Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. after serving as director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. This past January, he became the Tampa Bay Partnership CEO.

His lean Partnership staff of seven is not revamping the group without a road map. The Tampa Bay Partnership reached out to several key metro areas successful in creating a pro-regional economic development model that actually seems to work. Perhaps the strongest example in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area is the so-called Itasca Project. The private civic initiative of 60 or so local business leaders has a strong track record of encouraging issues of regional metro significance.

In fact, Homans notes, the Tampa Bay Partnership has been helped and mentored in its current overhaul by Michael Langley, CEO of the Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership. But similar CEO-driven groups in Pittsburgh, in Columbus, Ohio, and most recently in Charlotte, N.C., are all blazing regionally driven economic development trails the new Tampa Bay Partnership aims to follow.

Does a new Tampa Bay Partnership, to be run by 40 or so CEOs paying $50,000 annually to participate, run the risk of looking like some rich guy (with perhaps a few rich gals) club?

Homans argues that, done right, the new Partnership can earn community respect by what it does. He calls the $50,000 annual fee to serve on the board more of a "filter" that would help insure every CEO take the responsibility seriously.

Says Homans, who is never one to just sit still: "We will give it the old college try and see what this does."

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

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