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Chamber, high-tech officials wrangle

An attempt to form new business bonds leaves both sides struggling to produce constructive dialogue.

By KYLE PARKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay area's chamber of commerce and technology worlds collided Thursday, and it wasn't pretty.

The occasion was a breakfast at the Hyatt Regency Downtown. The topic: "Bridging the Gap Between New and Old Economies in Tampa Bay."

It quickly became apparent that the gap is awfully wide.

Antoinette Rodriguez, an Internet executive and vice president of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, took chambers to task for everything from not understanding tech issues to not diversifying their memberships.

The technology forum, formed a year ago, has grown to 700 tech executives, many of whom don't think it's worth their time to join a chamber.

"Why do chambers continue to only populate their leadership positions with older white male bankers?" Rodriguez asked.

The next two speakers, from the Tampa and St. Petersburg chambers, did little to address the problems.

Robin Ronne, who runs economic development for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, ticked off companies the city has landed, such as J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup and John Hancock Financial Services. "It's not old and new economies," he said. "It's the economy."

Then Russ Sloan, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, talked about how chambers can help deal with major issues such as transportation and education. "You're going to need the chamber," he said. "You can't operate in a vacuum."

But when the question-and-answer session began, attendees made it clear the chamber executives' answers weren't good enough.

They talked about how chamber officials have no clue about how to help tech start-up companies. And they said the business community needs to wake up an out-of-touch University of South Florida.

"Don't confuse Orlando with Tampa," said Brower Murphy Roberts, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Tampa from northern Virginia four years ago. "At the University of Central Florida, money gets off the campus for seminars and help for start-ups. At USF, it all stays there.

"Where is the incubator everyone keeps talking about? Where is the support for little guys like me?"

Others talked about how the Tampa Bay area has a terrible reputation for education and technology.

"I bring people to the bay area and they just don't see many options here for them," said James Wilkson, a vice president for Search Advisors International, a Tampa executive search firm. "They say, 'What if I want to go to another job? I'll have to move.' "

One thing seemed clear from the breakfast, hosted by Tampa's Trenam Kemker law firm: Finding ways to get the new and old economy folks to work together won't be easy.

Attendees didn't think creating some new superpowered business group to drive the train is the right approach, though. Other cities, such as Raleigh, N.C., have thrived with chambers working closely with technology groups.

Instead, they talked about attacking issues one at a time by bringing in people from both the chamber and tech worlds.

One example: The Tampa chamber is starting a business incubator task force to get the idea moving. USF has talked of creating a facility to launch start-ups for several years, but nothing has happened.

And chamber officials have enlisted three of the area's top tech names -- consultant Marty Donsky of PricewaterhouseCoopers, Marty Traber of the Foley & Lardner law firm and Mike Kovac, who runs the high technology engineering program at USF.

There was another sign of progress as the meeting adjourned. Kim Scheeler, the new president of the Tampa chamber, compared Palm organizers with Donsky, seeing when they could have lunch.

"There finally seems to be a dialogue starting here, which happened in Orlando two years ago and in Atlanta five to 10 years ago," Donsky said.

"While getting a J.P. Morgan Chase is great, you also need to help create the ability to grow your own tech companies. The wealth from that is what drives more growth.

"Ninety percent of tech start-ups will fail. But there is a lot you can do to help the other 10 percent make it."

Both the old and new economy groups need to sell members on the need for cooperation, the forum's Rodriguez said. That's just as tough a challenge for the forum's leadership as it is for the chamber's. "Many of our folks don't think the chamber is of any use to them," she said.

The key is to convince tech millionaires who've sold their companies to help others follow their path, said Scott Faris, chief operating officer of Ocean Optics Inc. in Dunedin, one of the area's few tech start-up successes.

"These guys want to kick back," Faris said. "To change that, you need a driving force to bring things together."

- Contact Kyle Parks at parks@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

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