ST. PETERSBURG — Many of the Tampa Bay area’s cutting-edge industries might not be here today without funds secured by Congressman C.W. Bill Young, business leaders say.
Over four decades in office, Young helped direct billions of dollars to Pinellas County defense contractors such as Raytheon and Honeywell and millions more to seed St. Petersburg’s well-respected marine science sector.
Whoever fills the congressman’s seat will have to work to keep building on the region’s strengths as a technology and innovation center. But it will be a very long time before any of the area’s congressional leaders gain Young’s stature, said Peter Betzer, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.
That means getting things done in Washington for the local business community may become harder.
“Whoever replaces him is going to be really challenged,” said Betzer, the former dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science.
“Whoever you are, it’s going to take you a long time to get the kind of respect and seniority Mr. Young had.”
Federal funding for long-term research has waned in recent years, and a ban on earmarks has limited the broad influence congressional leaders once had to fold contracts and grants into bills to benefit constituents.
Over the course of Young’s lengthy tenure, which included chairing the U.S. House of Representatives defense appropriations subcommittee, he directed funds to countless projects, ranging from underwater sensors to high-tech military weaponry.
In a 2010 survey, Young ranked fourth out of 438 House members in terms of total earmarks, totaling more than $128 million, according to the OpenSecrets.org.
By contrast, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, ranked 70th with $47 million that year, and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, came in at 281 with $13.6 million.
Castor and Bilirakis are both in their fourth terms, while Young was serving his 22nd term in office.
Young’s earmarks in 2010 included $21 million for a communications facility at Mac Dill Air Force Base, $4 million to contractor Raytheon for a naval defense sensor system and $3 million to SRI International for technology that tracks ship movements.
Washington defense industry analyst Loren Thompson said Young had a commitment to maintaining a strong, well-equipped military that transcended his support of Tampa Bay area contractors.
“Bill Young is one of the last of the defense lions, as insiders call them,” said Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that much of what America’s war fighters are using in battle today he is responsible for funding.”
Young’s death will be felt across the entire defense industry, as the congressman was seen as a stalwart supporter of military spending, even as many have called for cuts, Thompson said.
Legislators have had less say over where defense funds go since earmarks were abolished, putting more power in the hands of Pentagon authorities, but Young has remained an influential figure because of his deep relationships in Washington, he said.
These changes have also affected the way university and institutional research gets funded.
That’s highlighted the importance of having someone such as Young on Capitol Hill, educational leaders say.
The congressman helped the University of South Florida develop centers of excellence in health, technology and marine science, said Paul Sanberg, vice president for research and innovation at the University of South Florida.
With the elimination of earmarks, many federal grants are only available to institutions with a narrow expertise, Sanberg said.
Because of Young’s efforts, USF has attained that stature with research centers like the Center for Biological Defense and the Center for Aging and Brain Repair.
“He really helped us get some strong expertise in certain areas, which allowed us to then be more competitive at a federal level,” Sanberg said. Young has also helped direct the university to the right funding sources, which has been crucial as federal dollars are harder to obtain, he said.
Looking ahead, what concerns Betzer most is the tendency in a time of budget shortfalls and gridlock for Congress to only fund projects that yield immediate results.
Technologies such as an underwater sensor that detects oil plumes that came out of USF’s College of Marine Science took years to develop, Betzer said.
The long-term success of the college eventually drew prominent private institutes like SRI International to move to St. Petersburg, creating high-paying jobs and spurring other tech companies to grow.
Young seemed to understand the economic value of these kinds of long-term government investments better than most, Betzer said.
“He was smart enough to recognize that,” Betzer said.