Tampa Bay Area Leaders in Chile to Build Economic Ties

December 12, 2014

Christopher O’Donnell | Tampa Tribune
The launch of Copa Airlines regular service from Tampa to Panama was heralded by local leaders as a crucial step to put once-remote South American markets within reach of Bay area businesses.
Now, in another sign of business leaders’ intent to tap into the continent, a who’s who of elected and economic development leaders from both sides of the bay have embarked on a five-day trade mission to Chile intended to boost local exports and sell Tampa Bay as a tourist destination.
The 44-member delegation, which left Monday, includes Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel and Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller.
Also making the 12-hour trip are the heads of economic development for both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Port Tampa Bay Executive Vice President Raul Alfonso, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater and Visit Tampa Bay executives, and officials from University of South Florida, University of Tampa and Eckerd College.
Their itinerary includes meetings with U.S. Ambassador Michael A. Hammer, the Chilean Trade Commission and the mayor of Santiago.
The mission is the first organized by the Tampa Bay Export Alliance, a group formed in May by Hillsborough and Pinellas economic development leaders to head international trade missions that market Tampa Bay as a single economic region. With elected officials from both sides of the bay present, it marks a new level of economic cooperation between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, said Lorrie Belovich, international business development director for the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation.
“This will provide the opportunity for Tampa Bay companies to meet face to face with potential buyers for their products and services,” Belovich said. “This trade mission, and others like it, are the ‘grass roots boots on the ground’ efforts making international growth for our region a reality.”
Among the companies who paid $1,100 to be included in the mission are Oldsmar firm Hydro-Dyne Engineering, Custom Manufacturing and Engineering from Pinellas Park and real estate firm Ryan Companies.
The outlay, which is separate from the $1,225 round trip airfare, provides companies with interpreters, car and chauffeur for business appointments and one-on-one interviews with economic “matchmakers.”
The incentive for companies is to add to the $17 billion worth of U.S exports that already flow into Chile.
A big exporter of its natural resources like copper, fruit and fish, the South American country has only a small manufacturing base, making it attractive for firms that make agricultural equipment, auto parts, food processing and packaging and mining equipment among other fields, according to alliance officials.
The mission is also intended to boost the number of Chileans visiting Tampa Bay for vacations.
Chile was added to the U.S. visa waiver program this year, meaning residents there can visit the United States for business or tourism and no longer have to pay a $160 visa fee, providing they stay no longer than 90 days.
Since then, the number of U.S. trips booked by Chileans has risen by 30 percent and is projected to double over the next two years, according to alliance officials.
The introduction of the Copa flights from Panama, for which airport directors approved a one-time $1.2 million financial package, is helping that trend, said David Downing, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater interim tourism director.
“Latin America in general is a huge focus for us,” Downing said. “Once we were able to nail down this flight, it was go time.”
The Pinellas tourism agency has already created a new Latin America sales division to handle growing interest from the continent and is to add more staff.
“This is a blueprint for continued development of St. Pete/Clearwater and greater Tampa Bay area,” Downing said. “At the moment, Florida is known for two things: Mickey and Miami. Those days are going to be behind us real quick.”
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Twitter: @codonnellTBO