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Greenlight Pinellas has big backers in big business

Published Oct. 26, 2014

The Greenlight Pinellas referendum to expand public transportation is supported by a fundraising group called Friends of Greenlight.

Greenlight's very best friends, though, have been corporations.

The campaign has raised $1.2 million to push Greenlight, and 95 percent of that has come from a who's who of bay area businesses: Sykes Enterprises and Sykes Investments ($100,000 total), Duke Energy and Raymond James Financial ($50,000 each), BayCare Health System ($25,000). Even Hooters ($2,500) chipped in.

Greenlight also has the support of some marquee names: Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg ($50,000), Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik ($25,000) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their owners, the Glazer family ($25,000.)

Political campaigns often try to hide their corporate backers. But not Friends of Greenlight.

Tampa Bay Partnership CEO and Greenlight fundraiser Stuart Rogel said corporate support shows that it's not just politicians who want to build the area's first light-rail system. Names like James, Sykes and Vinik are as crucial as the dollars they give.

"It gives an important imprimatur of support that we want," Rogel said.

But Greenlight's determined foes said corporate support doesn't equal community support.

• • •

Corporate support for the Greenlight plan to build light rail and expand bus service in Pinellas comes down to this: They believe it's good for the area and good for them, too.

"These companies want this to be a very successful and vibrant community," Rogel said, "because it will make it easier for them to attract employees and do business."

Businesses believe public transportation is woefully underfunded. They hope fixing that will make the area more competitive for companies, jobs and employees against metro areas that already have mass transit.

"We believe that transit is one of the most important things we can do to bolster our local economy," said Brian Auld, the Rays' new team president.

Employers believe mass transit will help them attract the workers of the future: millennials that are shunning cars and suburbs to live and work in urban areas.

"They don't want to spend 45 minutes getting to and from work," said Pinellas Realtor Organization chairwoman Brandi Gabbard.

According to Yahoo Finance, less than 70 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds have a driver's license. Sprawling Pinellas may have a hard time attracting home buyers of the future.

That may be why real estate has been the sector most supportive of Greenlight, donating more than $300,000. Most of that came from a $245,000 donation from the National Association of Realtors, which was made at the behest of Gabbard and the PRO.

Mercedes Sanchez van Woerkom, the managing director of equity research at Raymond James, learned about millennials' driving habits while recruiting them to come work for her.

Last year didn't go so well.

She tried to take 20 job candidates to dinner in Tampa — only their bus spent an hour stuck in traffic on the Howard Frankland Bridge.

"I had everyone looking out trying to find dolphins," she said. It was "embarrassing," she added, and one of her worst years hiring recruits to the company.

• • •

A vocal group of critics is trying to derail the Greenlight plan.

They believe it's a scheme to bail out an agency they don't trust — the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority — by wasting tax dollars on an expensive system that they say few will use.

"To me it's about a huge expansion of the footprint of this taxing authority," said Barb Haselden, campaign manager for No Tax for Tracks, the referendum's most strident foe.

She complained that Greenlight's support is coming from outsiders who hope to make a profit. She pointed to Parsons Brinckerhoff, a New York infrastructure consulting firm that donated $50,000. Parsons, however, has a Tampa office and 100 employees, many of whom live in Pinellas.

One of the disconnects between both sides is that Greenlight supporters see mass transit as a regional issue. Supporters hope that, if Pinellas voters approve the plan, it will spur Hillsborough voters to adopt their own transit plan. Then the region could create a transit system that bridges Tampa Bay.

That's why many supporters of Greenlight, like the Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Electric Co., also donated to Hillsborough's failed 2010 transit referendum.

But Greenlight foes see the Nov. 4 vote as a matter that only concerns Pinellas County voters.

State Rep. Ed Hooper, who is running for a County Commission seat, wants to improve bus service. But he doesn't want light rail and he doesn't want county residents to pay the state's highest sales tax at 8 percent.

Haselden said the transit tax is a corporate subsidy that "corrupts the free market."

To which the chairman of Raymond James responded: Do government-built roads corrupt the free market?

"They hate taxes," Tom James said of Greenlight's foes. "I hate taxes, too. But the fact is taxes have a legitimate purpose, and you don't want to stunt growth in the area."

• • •

Haselden contrasted Greenlight's corporate support with grass roots support of her anti-rail group No Tax for Tracks.

Her 301 contributors have raised nearly $95,674, according to the latest campaign finance reports posted Thursday. Most of that, $84,949, came from 287 individuals.

She also said she has distributed 6,000 No Tax for Tracks signs.

"I feel what we're seeing is not an outpouring of support for Greenlight," she said. "What we are seeing is an outpouring of support for No Tax for Tracks."

But Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said Greenlight has widespread support. There have been 593 donations made to Greenlight, and 467 came from individuals who gave a total of $57,415, according to the campaign's latest report.

While corporations have been generous supporters of Greenlight, they have not always been vocal. Most of the stumping has been done by folks like Rogel and Welch, not business people.

Some executives, like Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman and BayCare Health System CEO Steve Mason, have spoken out in favor of Greenlight.

But others haven't spoken out. A Bucs spokesman said the Glazer family doesn't comment on personal donations. Hooters wouldn't comment, either.

Corporations may be showing their support for Greenlight while staying out of the day-to-day skirmishes, like this one:

Haselden's latest charge against Greenlight is that local businesses fear speaking out against the referendum. She did not name those businesses.

"They're afraid to speak out because they're afraid of getting blackballed for not getting along," she said. "It's very intimidating to a lot of people."

Friends of Greenlight spokesman Kyle Parks said they've never heard that complaint.

"The whole notion is ludicrous," he said.

Episodes like that may be why some corporations have financially, but silently, supported Greenlight.

"This has been a particularly nasty campaign," Welch said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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