Much to celebrate but much more work to do at Tampa Hillsborough EDC annual gathering

October 27, 2016

Bob Trigaux | Tampa Bay Times

One of Tampa Bay’s premier economic development groups gathered Tuesday evening to celebrate a strong year of regional growth, broaden its mission to encourage millennial entrepreneurs here, and hand the baton of leadership to a new chairman.

Held once again at the Amalie Arena, the annual meeting of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. featured an upbeat mix of speakers and a heavy dose of rousing pro-growth videos pitched under the evening’s theme of “Thrive.”

Here are five highlights from the event:
– Craig Richard, the EDC’s new CEO as of this past summer, made his public debut by outlining the strong EDC record since 2009 of180 companies bringing thousands of new jobs and $1.5 billion in capital investment to the Tampa and Hillsborough area.

– Incoming chairman Dr. Ken Atwater, the president of Hillsborough Community College, promised to make the EDC even more “focused and aggressive” in recruiting new business and millennial talent, retaining those that are here and raising new private funds of at least $2 million to strengthen the EDC’s bottom line.

– Outgoing chair Colleen Chappell, whose year has included a fresh focus on understanding how to encourage more millennial talent to this market, introduced a group of young area entrepreneurs in the audience. They are working with the EDC under a new brand called StandUp Tampa, serving as ambassadors to spread the word that this area wants, needs and supports millennial start-ups and companies run by young CEOs. Among the StandUp Tampa group attending: Roberto Torres, the Ybor entrepreneur behind Black & Denim clothing and the expanding Blind Tiger Cafes, and Omar Soliman, co-founder of Tampa’s College Hunks Hauling Junks. StandUp Tampa’s first cheerleading video is now available on YouTube. Chappell urged the EDC audience to get to know the young ambassadors, noting they are CEOs many of us may be working for in the future.

– One of several videos featured offered upbeat economic messages from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Temple Terrace Mayor Frank Chillura, Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan – all representing public money investors in the EDC. Hagan’s video remarks mentioned the excitement in possibly landing a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in Hillsborough County. But he also warned that Tampa Bay’s failure to move forward on a mass transit system is “one thing that puts us at risk.” He said he hopes to see a transportation plan on the ballot within the next two to four years.

– The EDC is fortunate to have a strong bench of leadership in the pipeline. After Atwater’s term as chairman ends next October, EDC vice chairman Alan List, the CEO of Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center, is scheduled to step up. USF president Judy Genshaft is the EDC’s secretary/treasurer and Rhea Law, who seems to dominate regional scene lately as head of various economic development groups, is the EDC’s general counsel. That’s a lot of horsepower waiting in the wings.

Granted, annual meetings like this one are designed to be feel-good events that highlight the positive. Still, it’s important for this entire metro area to understand that saying “Tampa” or “Tampa Bay” is the hottest metro commodity around is one thing. Proving it day after day is another.

The think tank Brookings recently identified Tampa, accurately, as a “middleweight” city aspiring to raise its bar and join those metros like Atlanta, Boston, Austin and Denver (among others) that have the deeper economic and educational horsepower that Brookings says makes them “knowledge capitals.”

That is a category leap Tampa Bay certainly desires but is still years from achieving. And there is no guarantee it will happen.

One of the well recognized but underlying weaknesses Tampa Bay suffers from is a limp identity or brand in the eyes of the bigger world. Incoming CEO Richard cited that to me in our first breakfast together last summer. Others say much the same.

Some cities have strong or at least emerging brands. Atlanta’s got one (even a new TV show by the same name.) Nashville’s got it. Charlotte’s working on one. Orlando has one based on its theme parks but is trying to broaden that brand to something beyond mass tourism.

It’s all good. The EDC seems headed in the right direction and on Tuesday had much to crow about. Its meeting theme – “Thrive” – felt right for the times, even if there is much yet to do.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.