Opportunity Knocks: Not Your Average Speakers, Tampa

When people interested in moving cities forward engage in discussions on how to create a better environment and provide more opportunities for talented people, the topic of public-private partnerships (also known as P3s and PPPs) belongs front and center.

Simply walk around downtown Tampa to see the city's most recent P3s, including Lights on Tampa's multicolored Agua Luces -- a partnership between the City of Tampa's Art Programs Division and the Public Art Alliance that currently spans five bridges and will include four more by 2014.

Stroll down Florida Avenue and you'll see the Classic Federal Courthouse transforming from a vacant building into a restored 113-room boutique hotel at the hands of Memphis-based Development Service Group.

Turn south on Franklin Street and take a look at the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation (CAMLS) -- one of the best examples of public-private partnerships in the country, let alone the Tampa Bay region.

The $38 million three-story CAMLS facility was picked by 83 Degrees Media as the ideal location for its seventh and, what turned out to be most spirited, Not Your Average Speakers series event yet: "Opportunity Knocks: Putting P3s to Work" on Sept. 26.

Panelists included Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, USF Sr. VP for Global Affairs & International Research Karen Holbrook, founding principal architect and CEO of Baker Barrios Architects Tim Baker and Ken Stoltenberg, co-founder of Mercury Advisors and developer of Grand Central at Kennedy.

Moderator Carol Mickett of St. Petersburg-based Mickett/Stackhouse Studio, guided a lively 75-minute discussion for an audience of about 130 people that touched on the importance of P3s in a fragile economy and what the future of Tampa might look like if these partnerships flourish.

P3s: A Necessity Going Forward

Turns out the blueprint for our future isn't so different from our past. Mayor Buckhorn launched into the discussion by highlighting two of Tampa's most successful public-private partnerships -- the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts and the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The biggest fundamental change to P3s, Buckhorn says, is why we use them. They're no longer simply a good business tactic, but instead are often considered a necessity in order to continue providing services to the public.

In the past five years, the city of Tampa's revenue from property taxes has taken a substantial hit as the value of residential and commercial properties fell or plateaued -- down to $115 million from $165 million in 2007, according to Buckhorn.

Regardless of the $24 million deficit the city faced this past fiscal year, the mayor assured the audience he would choose to pursue public-private partnerships with the same aggression even if there wasn't a deficit.

"I believe in shared risk and shared exposure," he says. "I want to make sure any deal we get in is with someone who will take as much of the heat financially, if not more, than I will. We can do more with more partners."

Assessing whether that partnership is short or long term is key in P3s, according to Holbrook.

"Sometimes you just need the partner to come in with an infusion of money to get something started and it'll go on on its own," she says. "Sometimes you want that partnership, particularly if they're in the university's incubator or research park, to have long-term goals."

At the other end of the spectrum -- the city opts to avoid long term partnerships if it can, Buckhorn says. There's no guaranteeing the outcome of any partnership, but the city can minimize its risk by approaching deals the same way the private sector would -- for instance, by asking, "What will this partnership produce?" If the answer is job creation and additional revenue, it might be a worthy gamble.

"Ultimately it has to produce something because I'm playing with other people's money," Buckhorn says.

Risk-Reward In Working Together

In the case of the Port of Tampa, the mayor is confident the city's recent $5 million investment combined with $2.2 million from CSX Corporation, $7.5 million from the Florida Department of Transportation and $15 million from Kinder Morgan Energy Partners in the completion of a 2-mile rail loop to speed the unloading of ethanol trains and cargo bearing ships was well worth the risk.

Additionally, a $600 million connector toll road between Interstate 4 and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway -- allowing trucks to bypass Ybor City traffic -- is scheduled for completion next year thanks to funding from a federal stimulus grant.

While the recent upgrades may not have a direct impact on surrounding businesses in the Channel District, Stoltenberg agrees keeping up-to-date on cutting-edge technology is a must where the Port is concerned.

"I'm originally from Wilmington, Delaware," he says. "We're the guys who stole your banana business."

Unfortunately, in recent years Tampa has been no stranger to the brain drain, either. Gifted programmers, artists, entrepreneurs and thought leaders leave the Tampa Bay area every year in pursuit of trendier, hipper, more urban cities.

Attendee Taryn Sabia, an adjunct professor of architecture at the University of South Florda and a founding member of the urban design nonprofit Urban Charette, asks what incentives will keep young talent from moving their startups to a city like Austin TX.

It comes down to local partners investing in homegrown companies instead of looking to recruit talent from other cities, says Baker. Baker Barrios is a global leader in next generation design, including urban projects like Encore in Tampa and Creative Village and City Place in Orlando.

There needs to be a healthy balance of hunting for outside companies to enhance the Tampa Bay region and growing the indigenous ones that will create jobs in areas of competitive advantage -- health science, defense, biotech and aquaculture -- says Buckhorn.

"If we want to compete with Charlotte, Raleigh and Austin, we need to change how we do business," he says.

How Do We Do That?

Attract young professionals to the urban core, for starters.

Maybe it's developing more green space, parks and recreation downtown, Stoltenberg says.

"I think people are starting to value time a lot more," Baker says. "Instead of sitting on the highways, they like being in a live, work, play community."

The mayor plans to continue his focus on finishing the Riverwalk. Make the river the center of downtown, not the western edge. Look at opportunities to develop everything between the river and Howard Avenue. Create an environment that would lead to private sector capital reinvestment focused on the waterfront. 

"We do that and people will look back on this as a time when Tampa really turned the corner," he says. "In 10 years, you won't recognize this city if we're successful."

Following the panel discussion, groups of people gravitated toward the auditorium's main floor to exchange contact info and introduce themselves to the mayor, including Grand Central at Kennedy resident Vince Arnett.

"The collection of people up there [on the panel] are an example of folks who are committed not just because of the bottom line, but because it's the right thing to do for Tampa," he says.

Before departing for the evening, Buckhorn gave credit to the audience 83 Degrees and "Not Your Average Speakers'' attract for creating an electric energy in Tampa that hasn't existed for a long time.

"I just happen to be the mayor," he says. "These people are the engines that drive it."

The "Not Your Average Speakers" series is free to attendees thanks to financial support from Baker Barrios Architects, Tucker Hall and Moffitt Cancer Center with technical support from White Book Agency and Edit Suites.

Next up for NYAS? Innovation. Coming in November. Keep reading and sharing 83 Degrees.

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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