Looking ahead: 10 agents of change raising the bar in Tampa Bay's economy

Ron Petrini, CEO of Great Bay Distributors, stands at the company’s construction site where its new headquarters is under construction on Wednesday.
Ron Petrini, CEO of Great Bay Distributors, stands at the company’s construction site where its new headquarters is under construction on Wednesday.
Published July 11, 2014

These 10 Tampa Bay folks are on missions worthy of watching in the latter half of 2014. Why? Because they represent our growing crop of change agents. They are people pushing to make things better in this regional economy. They are pressing for better options via mass transportation, economic development and job creation. They are pioneering private business adoption of solar power or building an innovative national network of cancer research and treatment. Kudos to their courage and passion. None of this comes easy. The Tampa Bay area is far better off for their efforts.

1. Ron Petrini


Petrini took a leap of faith by embracing Florida's famous sunshine. He's putting what will be the largest private solar power system in the state on the roof of his beer distributing company's massive headquarters now under construction just off Interstate 275 in the Gateway area of St. Petersburg. Electricity from its 1.5-megawatt solar array will help power a cold storage facility. In turn, Great Bay expects to reduce its electric bill by as much as 40 percent. As Petrini told the Tampa Bay Times: "It appears the numbers work very, very well for this company." The system will cost about $2.6 million and pay for itself in about six years, aided by a federal tax credit.

Great Bay becomes private industry's solar poster child in Florida. It's a welcome counterweight to the lavish lobbying by out-of-step electric utilities fighting to suppress the solar movement here.

2. Ken Welch


In four months, Welch will know if all his effort to present and promote the latest mass transit plan in Pinellas County pays off. Come November, county voters will give a thumbs up or down to the Greenlight Pinellas plan to upgrade a county bus system by 65 percent and build a 24-mile light-rail line. Welch, who also chairs the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, has been front and center, relentlessly explaining and re-explaining how Greenlight's mass transit improvement will improve transportation options in increasingly busy Pinellas, as well as inject a fresh reason to inspire economic development in a county clearly lagging its peers in job opportunities. Greenlight seems to have growing support of the area business community, but this will not be a slam dunk. Kudos to Welch for such perseverance amid a small but noisy opposition.

3. Suzanne McCormick


McCormick will take over for the retiring Diana Baker, who has been with the United Way for 35 years. She comes from the United Way of Greater Portland in Maine, where she spent 13 years, four of them as CEO.

The United Way Suncoast was born from the merger a few years ago of United Way of Tampa Bay and United Way of Sarasota County. McCormick, who holds a political science degree from Duke University, hopes to continue building the United Way brand with local events while broadening its source of funding.

In the last fiscal year, United Way Suncoast reported nearly $34 million in assets, including more than $19 million in investments and $6 million in pledges. The biggest regional corporate givers: Publix, Raymond James Financial and Mosaic.

4. Dr. Thomas Sellers


It's hard not to get caught up in the cutting-edge medical science and personal passion of Sellers. The director and executive vice president of the Moffitt Cancer Center also serves on the executive committee of what could become the Big Data game changer in the war against cancer. It's called the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network, or ORIEN (pronounced like the constellation Orion). The network is in the early stages of building a massive national data base of genetic-level cancer information that will be organized to deliver the best possible cancer treatments to individual patients. ORIEN's success will be based in part on a Moffitt-inspired protocol, or set of standards, called Total Cancer Care that sets a common language and medical definitions for gathering and communicating cancer information.

The network recently gained its first partner with the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. Look for more ORIEN partners in the coming months and years.

This could be the start of something remarkable. But Sellers, like all other Moffitt veterans, will be the first to express caution about the complex and nefarious nature of cancer.

"So far this has gone well, but we are learning as we go along," says Sellers, who joined Moffitt from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. "There is no road map. So we are relying on our collective commitment. I think this will grow into something big."

5. Brent Britton


Button-down he is not. He endorses a "no tie" dress code (except for court). He enjoys a California manner. And he now sports a shoulder-to-wrist tattoo featuring the Buddha ("less drama, more dharma," he says). Meet the Tampa corporate lawyer best known to this region's startup community as a go-to guy for both legal and Silicon Valley savvy. For the past 20 years, Britton has helped entrepreneurs and tech firms of all sizes, most recently working at the Gray Robinson law firm's Tampa office while helping co-found the Gazelle Lab business incubator at USF St. Petersburg.

Now Britton is opening a downtown office in Tampa's 400 N Tampa Park Tower with room for additional lawyers for the San Francisco law firm de la Peña & Holiday. His goal: to build the firm's tech business here and nationwide. Britton is bullish on the emerging startup culture here. "There's been a big uptick in the past two or three years," he says. "And that is very healthy."

6. Caitlin Wills


Recently arrived, Wills is jumping head-first into the startup health care scene. Her job: grow, launch and support Healthbox's four-month accelerator program that helps new health care businesses. She's also developing a network of local mentors.

Healthbox, which is cropping up in other cities, is supported here by Florida Blue, part of insurer BlueCross BlueShield. The first accelerator class will be run out of the Tampa Bay WaVE facility in downtown Tampa starting next month. Says Wills: "With my brief experience in working in the Tampa Bay area, I have found the local health and startup community to be lively and passionate."

7. Raul Alfonso


Alfonso wasted no time in distilling the state study which came out this past week on the tough choices ahead for the local cruise ship industry. How can Tampa Bay remain viable as a cruise port when more than 90 percent of the future cruise ship fleet will be too tall to fit under the Sunshine Skyway? Do nothing, warns Alfonso, who relocated here early last year from JAXPORT, the port in Jacksonville, and bid adios to a formidable piece of the regional tourism business.

Unfortunately, the new Florida Department of Transportation study sheds no new light on the port dilemma and fails to offer recommendations. Rebuild a new, taller Skyway bridge? I think we can agree that's absurd, wasteful and pricey. Build a new cruise ship facility that does not require ships to go under the bridge? That's a smarter idea, but still not cheap. A hard decision lies ahead for port officials.

8. Rudy Ciccarello


In downtown St. Petersburg, it seems every major retail, entertainment and cultural project lately is backed by Bill Edwards' money. That makes Ciccarello's arrival a breath of diversified air. His planned five-story, 110,000-square-foot Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement is expected to rise, complete with a 300-car garage, and house a multimillion-dollar permanent collection. It's expected to go up on 3.5 acres, part of the Synovus Bank site between Third and Fourth streets and Third and Fourth avenues N.

For this, give financial thanks to Cicarello's entrepreneurial skills as a pharmacist. Back in the 1990s, he invested $10,000 in a Tarpon Springs storefront and grew a pharmaceutical supply company called Florida Infusion. It morphed into a national network, topping $400 million in sales and making its founder rich.

Downtown St. Pete loves to promote itself to tourists as an arts museum mecca. So a new museum of this magnitude could be nearly as invigorating in the hands of smart marketers as the new Dali Museum proved to be when it opened in 2011.

9. Sophia Wisniewska


Yes, the freshly arrived chancellor was a "person to watch" in 2013, too. But her strength lies in strategic planning. Now she has had time to gauge her university's strengths and weaknesses firsthand. And she can better appreciate the political landscape of USF St. Pete's status as part of the giant USF system based in Tampa, and as part of a St. Petersburg business community eager to elevate the once-sleepy school's rising reputation.

After a nine-month review, Wisniewska is recommending that the St. Pete campus grow from 4,700 students to 10,000 by 2024 to improve financial security. She's also reaching out for closer ties with such local companies as Valpak, Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, All Children's Hospital and HSN. Coincidentally, she wants to build brand-name academic programs in finance, health care and information technology. And the campus' College of Business, long without a home, is on track for a new building of its own and, soon, a new business dean to run it. If half of this happens, Wisniewska comes out a winner.

10. Mark Sharpe


Known for his hyperactive enthusiasm, a love of the rising entrepreneur's spirit here and support for better mass transit, this Hillsborough County commissioner will soon be out of office thanks to term limits. But the nonprofit Tampa Innovation Alliance, created by the powerhouse quartet of USF, Moffitt Cancer Center, Florida Hospital and Busch Gardens, already has hired Sharpe to revive its sluggish efforts to revitalize the tired neighborhood surrounding these four organizations. He serves as a part-time consultant now, paid $6,000 a month, and is expected to head the alliance full time when he finishes his term late this year.

"I'll either succeed, or fail badly," Sharpe told the Tampa Bay Times. "I hope I succeed."

Contact Robert Trigaux at or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.