A delegation of Tampa business leaders returned from Colombia this weekend with new business connections worth potentially $7.3 million.
"It was a good trip," Mayor Bob Buckhorn reported Monday morning. "We need to build on it. We need to do more of them."
Buckhorn and Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., led a group of 11 Tampa-area companies during the week-long trip to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, and to Barranquilla, Tampa's oldest sister-city.
The local delegation was part of a larger group led by Gov. Rick Scott. In all 194 people – more than a quarter of them from Tampa – made the trip last week.
The U.S. ran a $6.8 billion trade deficit with Colombia in 2012, importing almost $19 billion in goods and exporting about $12 billion, according to the Census Bureau.
Florida exports to Colombia totaled almost $5.3 million in 2011, the most recent year for statistics, according to Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency. Those exports included electronics, airplanes and parts and fertilizer.
Imports to Florida that year reached $3.8 billion, led by gold, cut flowers and petroleum products.
Last week's agenda included pitching Tampa International Airport as a new base for Avianca, Colombia's national airline – and as an alternative to Miami International Airport. Avianca now flies to the U.S. via Miami and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
"I want us to be the gateway to the Americas for all of Central and South America and Mexico," Buckhorn said.
The local delegation spent several days in round-robin business meetings in Barranquilla, a port city of 2 million on Colombia's northern coast. The city is growing rapidly and is looking for help in building new roads, light-rail transit and other infrastructure projects, Homans said.
"They need contractors," Homans said. "They need design and engineering firms. They need dredging companies."
Based on the ties developed last week, Tampa-area companies could have a chance to compete for some of that work, he said.
Homans said Tampa business leaders met their Colombian counterparts one-one-one in a series of 30-minute sessions. In several cases, those brief encounters led to invitations to visit locations away from the conference center, he said.
For Alfred Goldberg, owner of mobile-marketing firm Absolute Mobile Solutions, the trip to Colombia held the promise of more work in a region where communications technology has leapfrogged old-fashioned landlines.
"Everywhere we went, we saw people with smartphones," Goldberg said.
During the visit to Barranquilla, the delegation got to see the key presented by then-Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio when he established Tampa's sister-city relationship with Barrranquilla in 1966.
"It was heavy as a barbell and about 18 inches long," Homans said.
The Colombia trip was Buckhorn's third international journey as mayor. Last year, he led delegations to Panama and Israel.
Homans said his group is already lining up economic development trips next year to Brazil, Germany and Switzerland.
Meantime, his staff will begin planning to host a delegation from Barranquilla. That city's mayor plans to lead her own group of business leaders to Tampa in May to mark the one-year anniversary of the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, Homans said.
The trip will include tutoring for local businesses in the best ways to bid on work in Colombia. But it may also inspire Colombian companies to choose Tampa, Homans said.
"We want these companies to come here and look at using Tampa as their base of operations in the United States," Homans said.