By Jill Witecki, Tampa Theatre
A generation or two ago, Economic Development looked like steam and soot, steel and ships. But today’s economic engine is powered not by sweat equity, but by information and ingenuity. This “New World Economy,” as University of Tampa President Ron Vaughn called it, is built on the brains of “knowledge workers” instead of the backs of the laborers.
Such was the message during our recent Leadership Tampa Economic Development Day, where our class got to meet some of the minds guiding Tampa into its next chapter and witness first-hand the type of cutting-edge business thinking that will form the city’s future.
The morning started at the elegant steel-and-concrete office of our day sponsor, Beck, where a panel of Tampa’s economic development leaders shared their visions for the community. “We’re a Top 20 metro area, and we need to behave like one!” proclaimed Rick Homans, kicking off the conversation. Homans, who is the president and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation, went on to provide the example of attracting Bristol-Myers Squibb to Tampa by bringing together all of the regions colleges and universities to showcase the area’s qualified workforce. It worked, and the new North America Capability Center opened in Tampa earlier this year, which will create 579 new jobs over the next three years and generate $21.1 million in capital investment.
His sentiment of attracting big business by thinking like a big business center was echoed by fellow panelists like Stewart Rogel, CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, who defined the area not as America’s Next Great City, but as an eight-county “top region” with four ports, three international airports, four major industry clusters and 4.3 million people.” Bob McDonaugh, the Administrator of Economic Opportunity for the City of Tampa, agreed: in today’s world, “jobs come to where the people are,” as opposed to the outdated notion that people will move to where the jobs are being created.
So how do we position Tampa as “where the people are?” According to the Chamber’s own Bob Rohrlack, part of the answer is education connection programs that tie higher education institutions into the business community, place our best and brightest interns in full-time positions and find ways to connect non-college high school graduates with local opportunities.
The next panel featured four speakers who have taken advantage of local opportunities with the type of “vision” that panelist and President of Morgan Realty Advisors, Greg Morgan, called the “number one thing” driving our community forward. Richard Gonzmart’s family has spent three generations driving innovation as the first air-conditioned dining room in the city (during the Great Depression, nonetheless), creating jobs at their multiple locations, and sourcing locally for both his food AND his latest building – turning a former City of Tampa Water Works building into a destination restaurant along the Riverwalk. Fellow panelist Gary Prosterman replied, “The greenest building is the one that’s already built!” Prosterman, too, is making a mark on Tampa’s future by preserving its past as the head of Development Services Group, which is currently turning the old downtown courthouse into the new Le Méridien Hotel.
Following the panels, we boarded the buses for a tour of Tampa Bay WaVE, “Tampa Bay’s coolest resource center for building, launching and growing tech ventures.” The brainchild of Linda Olson, WaVE was founded in 2008 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and was – in partnership with USF – the recipient of a $1 million i6 Challenge grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Housed in the city’s iconically round Rivergate Tower, the WaVE floor is a maze of glass-walled cubes, individual desks, collaborative spaces and – as befits a hip and trendy workplace – video games, exercise-ball chairs and plenty of snacks. It’s inhabitants are members who pay a monthly fee to “cowork” in the shared space, to join the Accelerator mentorship program, or for a seat at the Entrepreneur Roundtable. And as a member, they gain access to a support network and mutual admiration society of other like-minded tech folks, where posted requests like “Need: a programmer” illustrate how working together and sharing resources are making these knowledge workers even greater than the sum of their parts.
The rest of our afternoon was spent exploring three construction projects that represent somewhat more traditional “brick and mortar” growth, but with an eye on the changing needs of the city and its economic development. The first was a stop at the University of Tampa, where President Ron Vaughn shared with us the campus’ growth from a tiny commuter college that offered Depression-era students an affordable alternative to FSU and UF to a world-class private institution that employs 1,500 and draws 100,000 admissions inquiries a year from all 50 states and countries around the world. Coming soon, Vaughn promised as he showed us the renderings, is a new building that will house UT’s Entrepreneurship Center.
We also got to tour the in-progress Crescent Bayshore apartments sprouting out of a piece of prime real estate on the northern end of the picturesque boulevard: one of several multi-family housing developments Mayor Buckhorn has referenced in recent speeches that we as a community will see dotting the skyline over the next year.
The highlight of the day, though, was our final stop at the new Epicurian Hotel across the street from Bern’s hallowed steak house. Though new construction, the hotel is steeped in the love of and respect for good food, fine wine and excellent customer service that has made Bern’s a Tampa landmark since 1956. We, as a class, even got an opportunity to mix it up a little in that arena but… well… what happens in Leadership Tampa stays in Leadership Tampa.
In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, “We are a city poised on the verge of greatness, unwilling to settle for anything less than excellence.” His prevailing theme throughout the 45-minute speech was connecting Tampa’s history to its future. And it was a pleasure getting to meet some of the minds and hands bringing that vision to reality.