Despite Enterprise Florida turmoil on job incentives, site selectors find plenty to praise in Tampa

April 11, 2016

Robert Trigaux | Tampa Bay Times

Who says Florida’s economic development engine is on the fritz?

Sure, legislators nixed a coveted $250 million incentive fund that Enterprise Florida, the state’s job-recruiting arm, really wanted.

Okay, Enterprise Florida CEO Bill Johnson warned that loss of incentives could cost Florida 50,000 jobs. Now he’s leaving the agency after barely a year in office. It’s unclear if he exits with a pat on the back or a kick in the pants.

Alas, Gov. Rick Scott now wants to downsize Enterprise Florida’s staff and privatize its funding, presumably to limit pesky legislators from interfering further in future job-recruiting efforts.

And yes, the trickle-down effect of this Tallahassee spat to Tampa Bay’s economy may make it tougher for this area to land big-name expansions and high-paying jobs, as it has done recently with the arrival of behemoths like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson.

Such is the climate of economic development uncertainty here as six top site selectors came to town this week at the invitation of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. After days of touring Hills­borough County from Plant City to downtown Tampa (along with a Frozen Four college hockey game thrown in), the six sat down Friday morning at the Tampa Marriott Waterside and offered their unvarnished assessment of how Tampa and Hillsborough — at least that half of the Tampa Bay market — look as a place to recommend to their corporate clients.

Their overall assessment: You’ve come a long way, baby.

“You can compete with any city in the world on many projects,” site selector Deane Foote of Foote Consulting praised. But he urged stronger marketing. “Tell your story. Get the word out there.”

The area economy, diversified since the years dominated by call centers or bank back-office operations, can compete more broadly and with greater staying power when metro areas fight one another to win relocations.

“We should be called site eliminators rather than site selectors,” quipped Christopher Lloyd with McGuireWoods Consulting. After all, he said, his mission is to trim site options from many to one.

This was the second group of site selectors recently invited by the Tampa Hillsborough EDC to tour its market and publicly share their impressions. The first group of five site selectors came in September 2014 just as it was announced that billionaire Bill Gates and his personal money management arm, Cascade Investment, would financially back Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s ambitious 40-acre live-work-play real estate development vision just south of downtown Tampa.

The latest round of site selectors on Friday offered broad insights into the Tampa-Hillsborough market’s strengths and need for improvement. Here are the top takeaways:

• “Five years ago, you had good ideas that are now starting to coalesce,” said Lawrence Moretti of LFM Corporate Location Solutions. Plus, he added, with recent additions of some big-name corporate expansions, “you now have a track record of wins.”

• “Tampa is on the threshold of something different,” said Jerry Szatan of Szatan & Associates. He pointed to such successful arrivals as Bristol-Myers Squibb and the creation of the M2Gen cancer-fighting spinoff by Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center. Each of these entities rely on Big Data and advanced analytics, he said. And none of these businesses was here five years ago. That’s a mark of the area’s growing sophistication.

• One missing piece of the economic development puzzle remains, two site selectors noted: a sense of regionalism. The Tampa Bay Partnership used to provide regional marketing, noted Andrew Shapiro of Biggins Lacy Shapiro & Co. But nobody’s focused on doing it now, and that’s a handicap. “Frankly, you are diminished when you limit the tour to Tampa and Hillsborough,” he said. What about Pasco, Polk and Pinellas and, he added, “spectacular” St. Petersburg? That reference prompted an audible whoop of delight from St. Pete Chamber CEO Chris Steinocher in the audience.

• Scott Redabaugh of JLL Business Consulting Group pointed to the quality of the area’s educational assets, from public schools to USF, and the willingness to work together with the business community to help supply the area with relevant workforce skills.

Szatan added his own emphasis to the importance of workforce. What is most important in site selection? “Talent,” he said, “is one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine of the top 10.”

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.