TAMPA — To explain the importance of last week’s Tampa trade mission to Brazil, Mayor Bob Buckhorn brought back a souvenir — a mustard-colored bank note.
“This is Brazilian money,” he told a news briefing Monday morning.
He and the rest of Tampa’s economic boosters hope to see a flood of Brazilian reals flowing into this region in the coming years. Last week’s trade mission was their first attempt to build business ties between here and there.
“We can’t just rely on domestic activities and domestic job relocations,” Buckhorn said. “We’ve got to expand our universe.”
The trip to Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre was the latest to do that. Buckhorn led a delegation of 47 business executives, tourism experts and educators to the South American country. Brazil has become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and a major trading partner for Florida.
The trip came 10 months after Buckhorn led a trade mission to Colombia. In 2011, he went to Panama.
The Panama trip will bear fruit Dec. 16 when Copa Airlines makes its first flight from Tampa International Airport. Officials returned from Colombia with millions of dollars worth of contracts either in hand or in the pipeline.
The trip to Brazil was less productive, but promising. Some of the companies that went on the trip left representatives behind to seal deals.
“There are millions of dollars of potential contracts,” said Joe Lopano, chief executive officer of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. “What we were able to accomplish there was more than contracts, and that was relationships.”
The $60,000 trip was paid for by the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. and a mix of corporate sponsors, including fertilizer giant Mosaic Co., which has port, production and warehousing operations in Brazil.
The focus on Central America and South America is part of an overall strategy to raise Tampa’s profile in a part of the world more familiar with Miami and Orlando.
“If we’re going to be the gateway to the Americas, we have to go be the gateway to the Americas,” Buckhorn said. “Because I can promise you it’s not coming to us via email.”
Tampa already has some Brazilian connections to build on.
Brazilians have become a regular sight at Busch Gardens and other tourism venues in Central Florida. Gerdau, a Brazilian steel company, has its North American headquarters in Tampa’s West Shore Business District and employs 450 people here.
Two days before Buckhorn’s delegation arrived in Sao Paulo, representatives from the University of South Florida were in the national capital, Brasilia, working on plans to train Brazilian doctors in organ transplanting, said Maria Crummett, USF’s vice president for global affairs.
Crummett said USF hopes to get more of the 100,000 students Brazil sends abroad each year and build more ties with universities in Porto Alegre and elsewhere.
“The opportunities are significant,” Crummett said. “We have the wherewithal. Now we need to follow through.”
Tampa’s connections to Brazil may start to grow when Copa flights link this area to seven Brazilian cities, said Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.
“When you have those direct flights in place, it’s so much easier to do business,” Homans said.
The trade mission also gave Buckhorn a chance to sign Tampa’s ninth sister city agreement, this one with Porto Alegre, a port city of 1.5 million in southeast Brazil.
Some time next year, Porto Alegre Mayor Jose Fortunati will lead a delegation to Tampa. The details of that trip are still being worked out, Homans said.