Business experts downplay importance of transit in Hillsborough

Published Aug. 15, 2013

TAMPA — A group of business leaders told Hillsborough County elected officials last month that a lack of transportation options is holding the Tampa Bay region back in recruiting new employers.

The response Wednesday from some of the people who help corporations scout new locations: Not so much.

"Workforce, workforce, workforce," said C.J. Evans Jr., director of Merit Advisors, listing the top three considerations for businesses on the move. Merit Advisors does site-selection consulting for corporations. More than anything, companies want to know they will be able to recruit employees skilled in their industry, Evans said.

Behind that comes the cost of doing business, which can factor in incentives, Evans said. Transportation? Not a big topic.

That may not have been the answer some on the panel wanted to hear. The county's seven commissioners and the mayors of its three cities started meeting last month to discuss transportation needs and how spending on roads and mass transit can be used to spur economic development. They are expected to meet through next year.

The guests invited to speak Wednesday, who also included representatives of the manufacturing industry, downplayed the need for rail and even buses.

"Mass transit has not been a driving force for us," said James Garvey, executive managing director for the commercial real estate firm Cassidy Turley, which helps companies find office space.

Maybe a little in downtown Tampa, where parking can be a pain, or even the West Shore business district, said Garvey, who moved to Tampa nearly 30 years ago from Boston, a city with a large transit network. But he said he's not sure rail would work in this part of Florida.

"I don't think you have the densities," he said.

Transportation certainly is important, said some of the speakers. But they framed their thoughts more around roads and access to a port in terms of getting raw materials and then being able to get their products to customers generally located to the north.

The elected leaders heard from representatives of two manufacturing companies who guessed that none of their employees even use the county's bus system. They might if lines were nearby, but neither indicated that it was a consideration for operating where they do in Hillsborough County.

Business people probably would view any public investment in new mass transit in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, said an industry representative.

"Being kind of a conservative lad, how much is this expanded system going to cost?" asked Steve Meitzen, past president of the Bay Area Manufacturer's Association.

County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, whose push for transit helped form the policy group, said afterward that he was not disappointed with the theme of the conversation. He said the group heard Wednesday from people representing the types of businesses already in the region, whereas he's looking to use transit as a means to diversify the county's employment base.

He said he's convinced that young, skilled workers are interested in living somewhere that has transportation options.

"They're selling what they know," Sharpe said of Wednesday's speakers. "My focus is resetting the economy, attracting a type of industry we haven't attracted before."

Transit advocates got one small measure of victory when County Administrator Mike Merrill unveiled a timetable for the policy group's deliberations. It calls for adoption of a business plan by September 2014, though Merrill emphasized that that's a conceptual deadline, not a hard one.

The group Connect Tampa Bay has been seeking a timeline to ensure the talks lead to some action in the near term.