Let’s keep everything in context and not get carried away.
Sure, there’s been a welcome spate of good recruiting news recently ranging from the Bollywood Oscars show to additional international flights to a Bristol-Myers Squibb operation. And it looks like we’ll be getting our own Amazon warehouse, and, yes, we’ll soon have a Trader Joe’s and a Bass Pro Shop to call our own.
But that’s a function of a recovering economy, pro-active — often incentive-armed — recruiters and projected growth. Speaking of, it is estimated that Hillsborough County alone will add a half-million residents over the next two decades. Whether they pile in as sprawl the sequel or integrate as key components in the economy of the future is the question.
The key variable will be transportation. And, no, we’re not just talking about highway paving and high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
The business community agrees. Editorial boards agree — with each other as well as with the business community. And back in 2010 a majority of city voters, along with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the Tampa Downtown Partnership, the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Sierra Club and Mayor Pam Iorio, all agreed. And that is: Too much rides on modern mass transit — literally — to keep deferring it.
There is no actual status quo. It’s fall behind the competition — and that includes Orlando and Miami as well as Charlotte and San Antonio — or make the case for being better. The potential of this region and its increasingly assertive hub city will go frustratingly unrealized if the concept of commuting is still synonymous with driving. It’s that important as a quality-of-life and a quality-of-economy issue. There’s a reason that the Brookings Institution ranks Tampa Bay 77th among the top 100 metro areas for accessible mass transit. Not to rub it in, but Brookings lists the likes of Little Rock, Ark. (66), Greensboro-High Point, N.C. (74) and Jackson, Miss. (76) ahead of Tampa Bay. And Detroit, the embodiment of a future-less city, comes in at 73rd.
“I think that the lack of reliable mass transit adversely affects our ability to attract a younger demographic that does not want to drive to work or entertainment,” says Tampa Chamber Chairman Greg Celestan. His day job is running Celestar, which is not a call center or a retail franchise — but a 150-employee defense firm.
So it was at least heartening to see that recent (transportation policy leadership group) gathering that brought together an eclectic mix of CEOs, elected city and county officials and the head of HART. The message of the real-world execs: It will only get harder to recruit blue-chip, tax-base-expanding businesses and their lifestyle employees with an ongoing reputation for mess transit and ever-encroaching gridlock. And time, of course, is never an ally in such matters.
“You can have short-term reactions to business needs or you can have long-term planning that drives business growth,” underscores Gary Sasso, the president and chief executive of the Carlton Fields law group and a former chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership.
The fact that mayors and city-centric execs were weighing in with commissioners was also a welcome sign. For too long unincorporated Hillsborough, which is ideologically more attuned to Grover Norquist than John Maynard Keynes, has comported itself as the rural outlier scold to its elitist, citified neighbors. That counterproductive dynamic has to go.
The future of Tampa and Tampa Bay is all about enlightened, regional self-interest. To that end, Pinellas County is planning a tax referendum next year for mass transit that will include light-rail service with a connection to Hillsborough County via the Howard Frankland Bridge.
On the Hillsborough side, election results need to yield more county commissioners such as Mark Sharpe, who can marry mass-transit investment with pragmatic, fiscal conservatism. Mayor Bob Buckhorn certainly gets it, and now he’s joined by the transit-awakened Frank Chillura, the mayor of Temple Terrace. Perhaps Hillsborough, with leaders not pandering to the loudest tea partiers and acknowledging the change in economic climate, will soon be ready for a transit referendum redo that will be more detailed than the ill-fated, 2010 version.
In the mean time, Mayor Buckhorn — along with key mayoral counterparts from around the state — will assuredly be making return trips to Tallahassee to make the case for city-only referenda. Earlier this year Buckhorn and fellow mayors lobbied without luck, but they at least formally broached the subject that cities should be allowed to control their own destinies and not be hamstrung by the prospect of non-resident vetoes. What a novel concept.
And lest we forget, the Tampa Bay region’s unemployment rate is 7.1 percent. We’re hardly flush, recent recruiting successes notwithstanding. Smart growth has to be our mantra.
The need for meaningful, multimodal mass transit, which was apparent decades ago, will only accelerate going forward. What will be determinative is whether we’ve learned anything along the way about cost-benefit ratios.