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Tampa Bay area, meet your neighbors in South Tampa Bay

By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


Once upon a time, the Sarasota-Bradenton area really didn't consider itself part of sprawling Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater. And why should it?

One was a smaller, slower-paced region; the other, a busier midsize metropolis. They were growing neighbors on the gulf coast, but separated by geographic and psychological fences.

No more. Sarasota and Manatee counties not only acknowledge they need the clout of the larger metro area to the north and east of the Sunshine Skyway, but they are doing something about it.

For the first time, economic development of that two-county area will be marketed under a new name: South Tampa Bay.

Call it the brand annexation of Sarasota and Bradenton by the Tampa Bay area. It's the latest, but hardly the last, sign of the rapid escalation of economic regionalization under way here and in many other metropolitan markets across the country.

Why here? Why now?

Baby, it's an economic war out there. To be in the game these days, metro areas have to be able to supply the quantitative measures that will put them on the A (or at least the B) list of places with clout. How big and smart is the work force? How many airports and shipping ports serve the area? How many major universities? How broad are the cultural opportunities. How many sports teams?

Depth and breadth. For their size, Sarasota and Manatee counties have plenty to offer. But they are small fish in the economic development pond. Heck, their biggest challenge in telling their business story to the larger world is explaining just where they are in Florida.

South Tampa Bay. Now people from Silicon Valley to China will know.

The new brand is a win-win one, says Nancy Engel, executive director of the Manatee Economic Development Council. Using "South Tampa Bay" enables area employers to tout the benefits of three international airports, two deepwater ports, a host of educational institutions and a range of cultural and sports events.

Notice the progression. Manatee's Engel and Sarasota County Economic Development Council vice president Kathy Baylis found themselves pooling their economic resources more and more often to promote their area and recruit businesses.

"We realized while marketing our area as a single economic market that political boundaries meant nothing to relocating companies or to local companies considering expansion," Baylis says. "So we started thinking of branding ourselves together, and the logical name was South Tampa Bay. That brand gives us identity in the larger marketplace."

"South Tampa Bay" already is starting to show up in advertising in specialty real estate, trade and corporate relocation publications.

Adding Sarasota-Manatee also is a coup for the Tampa Bay brand.

A few years ago, the idea of extending the "Tampa Bay" name seemed dubious. As cities, Tampa and St. Petersburg (and to a lesser extent, Clearwater) constantly sniped at each other and spent limited resources competing with one another, often pursuing the same businesses.

That still happens, but less so. Bigger pressures -- economic globalization, tougher competition by other metro areas and a growing sense that central Florida gains more by cooperation -- are driving regionalization under the "Tampa Bay" banner.

Much of the care and feeding of the "Tampa Bay" brand is in the hands of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a relatively young organization charged with encouraging economic development in the larger metro region that stretches south to Sarasota County, north to Hernando County and east to Polk County.

"South Tampa Bay" is the first extension of the brand. But is it the last? Tampa Bay Partnership marketing vice president Chris Steinocher says leveraging the brand makes sense.

Will Pasco and Hernando counties one day be promoted as "North Tampa Bay"? Is Polk the next "East Tampa Bay"? "I think it's a natural," says Steinocher, but for now he just wants to see how "South Tampa Bay" works.

Of course, this area's economic regionalization is happening on many fronts. The Tampa Bay area's ties to Orlando, and even to the so-called Space Coast on Florida's east coast, are strengthening. The Tampa Bay area and Orlando are pooling efforts obtain the Olympics in 2012. Central Florida's effort to build and compete for technology companies is driven by a coalition of counties, the University of South Florida and University of Central Florida and economic development groups stretching from Pinellas to Volusia counties. Together, the group is called the High-Tech Corridor.

On Thursday, development leaders from the Tampa Bay area, Orlando and the Space Coast met to discuss how to organize and promote their combined high-tech work force.

"Everywhere, we see regionalism," Steinocher says. "More and more communities globally are pooling economic resources and not going it alone. They are trying to mass their high-tech work forces. To get on those (A and B) lists, you need quantity. That's one reason we have the High Tech Corridor effort."

In the mid-1990s, that level of economic cooperation seemed preposterous. "We could not even decide what to have for breakfast," Steinocher recalls. "It's not been easy in any market to carry a regional torch."

Sometimes, modest events show how cooperation helps. Last month, China's consul general, Zhang Chunxiang, visited Florida and stopped by Orlando at the invitation of the local Greater China Foundation.

Orlando tipped off Tampa Bay Partnership officials and a visit was arranged to discuss business and trade opportunities with China. Alone, neither the Tampa Bay area nor Orlando had the economic numbers to catch the Chinese consul general's attention. Together, via the High Tech Corridor initiative, Central Florida showed promise. A second visit has been scheduled with Chinese officials for June.

That opportunity would not have emerged a few years ago. Now, Steinocher says, "it was seamless."

Earlier this month, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce chief Russ Sloan spoke at a Tampa breakfast gathering about the momentum of economic cooperation. Sure, Tampa and St. Petersburg are working together more often. But that's chicken feed.

Sloan says the day is not far off when the bay area and Orlando will create an economic coalition that will prove "a most powerful force."

Will all this economic regionalization prompt an inevitable backlash? If economic globalization has been met with riots and protests in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Europe, won't we at least see a rise in local complaints?

Sarasota and Manatee business leaders are not blind to the notion that some locals may not like the adoption of the new "South Tampa Bay" slogan. So far, Sarasota's Baylis and Manatee's Engel say, nobody's upset.

"Regionalism is a trend," Baylis says. "With some exceptions, the days of parochialism in economic development are gone. We recognize we are increasingly dependent on each other in this region for our economy."

But "South Tampa Bay" is not meant to override the identities of Sarasota and Manatee. Says Baylis: "We still intend to market Sarasota County as a marketplace and we will do that with our own dollars." But "South Tampa Bay" gives the area a new and immediate identity in the bigger world.

When Manatee's Engel hired consultant Pat Scruggs of Oregon's Scruggs & Associates to provide a five-year plan for the county, the results were clear: In order to recruit young professionals to the smaller business market, Manatee and Sarasota counties had to start selling themselves as part of the Tampa Bay area.

Focus groups found young workers in Bradenton, Sarasota and the smaller towns of Palmetto or Venice thought nothing of zipping up to Ybor City to party or to St. Petersburg to catch a baseball game or dinner.

Will the "South Tampa Bay" brand catch on? Sarasota and Manatee economic development groups are pooling efforts to start a new high-tech incubator company known as the Sarasota Manatee Technology Accelerator. Its purpose is to help provide new tech companies with venture capital advice.

Engel thinks the company needs a new name: South Tampa Bay High Tech Accelerator.

Spreading economic regionalization under the Tampa Bay name is still a marketing work in progress. We'll revisit the issue often since so much seems to be happening these days. For now, the smaller areas clustered around Tampa Bay seem happy to borrow from its higher-recognition name.

In a tough economic world, regionalization is a little like the skinny kid alone out on the rough playground. Sometimes, it pays to have some bigger friends around.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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