Read any history about the Tampa Bay region's economic growth and you'll see colorful images from the past of cigar makers, citrus groves, beef cattle, real estate deals, sea shells and tourists flocking to Florida's sandy shores.
But try to envision the future and you soon realize that what comes next is still very much a work in progress dependent on thought leaders who can successfully communicate, cooperate and collaborate to make the most of what we have today.
That much was clear as about 20 people gathered around a conference table on the fourth floor of the Tampa Convention Center August 17 to talk about what it would take to change the narrative about the region away from the past and toward a bright future that focuses on technology and innovation as part of a mix of growing industries that requires a globally diverse talent pool of highly educated workers.
Seated around the table was a healthy cross-section of the Tampa Bay region's entrepreneurs, academicians, innovators, city planners and new media.
"We are sitting in a city of unlimited potential to do things differently as we move forward,'' Tampa's Mayor Bob Buckhorn says to the group. "If we want to focus on the jobs of the future and actively go after attracting the world's best and brightest, what more is needed?''
Buckhorn had asked David C. Glass, publisher of the Florida Technology Journal, to gather some of the region's business and academic leaders together to begin a conversation about how to move the region forward as a global leader in technology.
Here are some of the suggestions that emerged in response to Buckhorn's question:
Alfred Goldberg, president of North American operations at Absolute Mobile Solutions in Tampa: Market what is already here as incentives for additional investments; provide seed capital for startups; create a shared vision and a collaborative spirit, particularly among community leaders.
Marvin Scaff, software entrepreneur/technology innovator at Gazelle Lab in St. Petersburg and former venture capital fund CEO: Build strong educational programs and ensure greater accessibility to community resources and capital for creative and non-traditional thinkers and doers.
Christopher St. Thomas, account executive at IT Authorities in Tampa: Encourage collective collaboration within the technology industry, especially among "whiz-bang'' tech companies that tend to operate independently.
Rebecca White, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Tampa: Support stronger connections between entrepreneurs and lenders, a less conservative investment approach among venture capitalists and other investors, more internships and mentorships as entry points for exceptional students and young professionals, and more opportunities to tell the stories of entrepreneurs in technology and other businesses in order to create a new brand for Tampa.
Jennifer Bakunas, president and CEO of Magnetic in Tampa: Fund a local version of Grow Florida and provide greater support for second-stage companies as in those just past the startup stage but not yet burgeoning.
Mark Swanson, CEO of Telovations in Tampa: Help grow a new can-do attitude among banks and other lenders still stinging from the downturn in the real estate market, an economic development community that fosters the next Mark Zuckerbergs of technology, including supporting and recruiting small companies on par with what is being done for big companies. Tout the entire city of Tampa as an incubator of entrepreneurs and small businesses. Encourage business-to-business support and networking; successful businesses should voluntarily open up space and donate computers and other technology to startups. Pay success forward.
Anand Pallager, founder of atLargeinc. in Sarasota: Define the people, the process and the purpose for what the Tampa Bay region could be, knowing that "like attracts like,'' entrepreneurs want to learn about other successful entrepreneurs and lots of people are willing to work for less money in exchange for flexibility and being part of something exciting.
Ken Cowart, an architect who introduced the Japanese PechaKucha speakers series concept to Tampa: Broaden the vision for creating an attractive city to include the arts and a variety of livability measures; streamline the city's permitting process to eliminate its "buzz kill'' effect on events planning while making it easier to create a "fun atmosphere''; encourage micro-funding for creative ideas. Change the city's RFP process to be more solution-oriented by allowing bids to reflect the evolution of ideas in technology rather than encouraging lowball bids on technology that already exists.
Daniel James Scott, entrepreneurship expert with USF St. Pete's Sustainable Entrepreneurship & Innovation Alliance: Put less emphasis on creating incubator space for entrepreneurs and more on the process of becoming a successful entrepreneur. "The fun part is the process,'' Scott says. "Tell more success stories.''
Bob McDonaugh, City of Tampa urban development manager: Find ways to capitalize on the fact that how companies pick where they want to relocate is now based on the depth and breadth of the region's talent pool rather than on available property as in the past.
Everyone in the room expressed appreciation for the meeting as a terrific first step in the right direction to begin a community conversation designed to help the region help itself move forward to thrive in the future.
Building consensus on where to begin and what path to take -- just as in growing relationships -- will require much persuasion, perseverance and patience even when expediency may seem to demand less of all three.
Success will be measured based on who's looking and where they've been, as much as it will be on what community leaders see and where we decide we want to go.
Diane Egner, publisher and managing editor of 83 Degrees Media, is a member of Leadership Florida and serves on the boards of AIA-Tampa Bay and Powerstories. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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