Off to quick start in Tampa, EDC chief Craig Richard urges fresh branding effort for region

August 12, 2016

Robert Triguax | Tampa Bay Times

Craig Richard only arrived in Tampa in late June to take on the job of CEO of the job recruiting organization known as the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.

Yet he already has his family relocated from Atlanta to a new home. His wife, Verna, is starting a new job as a kindergarten teacher, and his sons are ready, respectively, for high school and middle school.

Oh, yeah. He also has had a summer of whirlwind introductions to hundreds of area business and political leaders. He has enjoyed not one, but two, welcome receptions and already participated in a leadership retreat. Now, he’s leaping into the EDC’s strategic plan to pinpoint objectives out to 2020.

Not bad for little more than 45 days here and counting. It’s a crash course for Richard, recruited to succeed Rick Homans (now running the Tampa Bay Partnership) as EDC chief, to gauge the Tampa/Hillsborough and the greater Tampa Bay economic and political climates. No worries, though. Richard is a longtime economic development pro who has dealt with similar challenges from Houston to Atlanta.

Still, even he acknowledges this three-city metro area, separated by a bay, is a more complex topography than the typical single “hub and spoke” urban core typical of most major metro areas. That’s one reason that, while he is a walking encyclopedia of “best practices” gleaned from earlier experience, he is wary of simply trying to push economic development strategies here just because they may have had success in a different market at a different time.

“We are shaped differently, so development patterns occur differently,” Richard said in a recent interview. “I need to understand those dynamics.” But one theme is clear and repeated by Richard: Regionalism is rising across most U.S. metros, and Tampa Bay must embrace it, too.

Richard’s top priority is for Tampa/Hillsborough — the EDC’s official turf as job and company recruiter — as well as all of Tampa Bay to win more respect. And maybe prompt a bit of fear in other metros trying to recruit the same jobs.

“The position I want to be in, frankly, when my peers hear Tampa is competing, is I want them to get very nervous,” Richard said. “I want them to know that when Tampa is on the short list (of a corporate expansion or relocation), they will face stiff competition ahead.

“Moving forward, I want us to be recognized as a force in economic development.”

So far, his easy smile and thoughtful demeanor also come with a competitive streak that’s setting the stage nicely for some of the issues already bubbling to the surface of Richard’s growing to-do list.

At the top: Figure out how best to market all of Tampa Bay as a distinctive place to do smart business and enjoy a coastal Florida lifestyle.

“The one thing that everyone says, in my conversations with leaders, is that the community as a whole flies under the radar,” Richard noted. “There is a sense we need to heighten the awareness of the advantages of doing business in Tampa and Hillsborough County, in particular. There is strong consensus to double down on our marketing efforts.”

If that quest sounds familiar, it should. Many business leaders here — from tourism executives and economic developers who in 2014 embraced “Bollywood Oscars” to the politicos who hosted the Republican National Convention here in 2012 — have concocted grand promotional pitches aimed at raising a better-defined image of Tampa and Tampa Bay to the larger world.

Tampa Bay has suffered a bad case of “metro envy” for decades, thanks to its close proximity to Orlando (home of the Mouse and, now, also Harry Potter theme parks) and Miami’s international flair as the gateway to Latin America. Both of those cities already enjoy global reputations.

What captures the essence of Tampa Bay? I’ve sat in law firm boardrooms, tourism agency headquarters and university classrooms where some version of that question has been asked time and again. We are, it seems, a very mixed bag of Midwestern niceness with a diverse economy of modest headquarters, some very pleasant beaches for tourists, a fine airport and a funky Latin quarter called Ybor. Packaging that into a compelling marketing message has proved most challenging.

So that’s why we’re glad to see Richard arriving here and so quickly endorsing the idea of branding and marketing Tampa and Tampa Bay anew — before we get forever defined from afar by others as simply bland or an urban hodgepodge. The issue is all the more timely now that the Tampa Bay Partnership is morphing from a regional marketing organization to one more focused on political advocacy.

“We want everybody to know our advantages — our authentic strengths,” Richard said. “That’s what it will take to be competitive in this new landscape of economic development. That is the great opportunity ahead of us — creating and crafting a strong message.”

Fresh eyes on a core question. He’s off to a quick and good start.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.

Tampa Hillsborough EDC: A jobs machine

•In fiscal year 2015, the EDC helped close on 22 recruitment or expansion projects that promise more than 3,400 jobs and $120 million in capital investment. The biggest deals include Amazon’s massive distribution and logistics center in south Hillsborough with 1,000 jobs, and Johnson & Johnson’s shared service center in the Hidden River Corporate Center that promises 500 jobs and $23.5 million in capital investment.
•In fiscal 2016, which concludes Sept. 30, among 22 EDC-involved deals are the relocation of Bertram Yachts’ international headquarters with 140 jobs and the arrival of the 250-job Americas operations center of TransferWise, a money transfer business.