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Orlando, Tampa Bay area find they're perfect partners

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000


St. Petersburg... has no heart, no soul, no identity... It is a mass of urbanized sprawl where people are crammed together like sardines... It created a black hole in the city center, one that continues to suck in millions of taxpayer dollars as city officials fail in one redevelopment campaign after another. -- an Orlando Sentinel column, 1995.

* * *

Before Disney showed up, Orlando was about as exciting as Lakeland on a Sunday afternoon. It's bigger now, of course, but it's still not much more than an overgrown small town, the Wonder bread of American cities, shiny and new and easy to digest but hard to really love... My friends in Borlando... will surely say I'm just jealous of their sudden success. -- a St. Petersburg Times column, 1995.

* * *

Five short years ago, the Tampa Bay area and Orlando spent countless hours belittling each other. The two metro areas aggressively competed for every corporate relocation, every pro sports franchise, every publicly funded project and, seemingly, every tourist who stopped by a theme park or gulf beach.

Now we can't seem to get enough of each other. Like star-crossed lovers come of age, the bay area and Orlando fall rapturously into one another's arms at a moment's notice.

It's as if the two were once one big city that was split, pulled apart by continental drift, and now reside a reluctant distant 75 miles apart.

To what do we owe such a metropolitan love affair? Civic hormones? Happy pills in the water supply?

Nah. Something much more powerful is at work. Money. Power. Influence.

Recently, it's dawned on Tampa Bay area and Orlando leaders: Together, we are a far more formidable economic force than apart.

The bay area and Orlando are hardly joined at the hip. The two still spar over many issues. But they are attached increasingly at the wallet in high-stakes national and international economic competitions.

Two days ago, a Tampa Bay/Orlando group called Florida 2012 flew by private jet to Colorado to hand deliver a bid to the U.S. Olympic Committee to host the summer Olympic games 12 years from now. The Central Florida effort, powered by the cooperation between the Tampa Bay area and Orlando, is pitted against seven other U.S cities pursuing the 2012 games.

The idea of the Tampa Bay area or Orlando separately bidding for the Olympics against metro areas such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Baltimore-Washington, Houston, Dallas or Cincinnati is ludicrous. (Okay, Cincinnati's not so scary.)

Of course, in 1997, Orlando at first wanted to make its own bid for the 2012 games. Smarter heads prevailed and Orlando joined the Tampa Bay area as a single regional contender.

Combined, the Tampa Bay area and Orlando (with selective participation in the games by Miami, Jacksonville and other Florida venues) may have a chance. The U.S. city chosen would go up against four or five cities from around the world, and the International Olympic Committee will choose the host city in 2005.

An uphill struggle? You bet. Especially when the Tampa Bay-Orlando effort lacks star power among the corporate leaders backing the Olympics bid.

It did not help that John Sykes, chief of struggling Sykes Enterprises in Tampa, stepped down as Florida 2012 chairman on Friday. Sykes is passing the Olympics mantle to the even lower-profile Sandy MacKinnon, owner of Yale Industrial Trucks and current vice chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Just keep this is mind: Central Florida would never be in the Olympics race at all without the partnering of the Tampa Bay area and Orlando. And even if the regional bid gets blown out of the water, the cooperative effort will forge useful ties.

Economic linkage between the two metro areas extends beyond an Olympics bid.

The Tampa Bay area and Orlando are the two heavyweights behind an effort to create Florida's own Silicon Valley stretching from the Gulf coast along Interstate 4 to Cape Canaveral.

That undertaking is called the Florida High Tech Corridor. It is a coalition of various Central Florida and state economic development groups, private technology businesses and the state university system.

Most critical to the High Tech Corridor is the active and high-level backing of Tampa's University of South Florida and Orlando's University of Central Florida.

USF president Judy Genshaft and UCF president John Hitt obviously want the Corridor to succeed. The two universities are tying much of their future to the establishment of a vibrant high-tech economy along I-4.

That economy needs three key contributions from USF and UCF. First, the schools must generate the intellectual firepower from their research ranks to help foster new companies based on new tech ideas. Second, the schools must educate enough young people with relevant tech training to help fill the employment demands of an expanding technology base.

Third, Genshaft and Hitt personally must beat the tech drum for the community and work to upgrade their school's technology prowess. So far, the two seem happy to do so.

Genshaft, appointed USF president last summer, makes every effort to meet the business community and spread a message of the university's commitment to economic development. When Genshaft was recruited, she says, promoting this area's economic development was a big part of the USF job description.

At area business events, Genshaft often ends her remarks with one question: What can USF do to help?

Hitt also stresses the importance of partnerships.

"There's more cooperation between Orlando and Tampa Bay than within my own back yard at times," the UCF president says.

That sentiment goes double around the Tampa Bay area. The area's fragmented cities and counties delight in sniping at one another and often undermine the metropolitan area's broader economic initiatives.

Yet another linkage between the Tampa Bay area and Orlando might -- might -- materialize in the years ahead. Last month, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring that a high-speed rail line be built and that construction start by 2003. The line would run parallel to the ever-clogged, ever-under-construction I-4, potentially bolstering the appeal of the High Tech Corridor and strengthening an Olympics bid.

Okay. Enough of the lovey-dovey stuff about the Tampa Bay area and Orlando.

The Tampa Bay area still remembers Orlando's obnoxious tactics in the effort to win the Major League Baseball franchise that became the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Orlando is only too happy to remind the Tampa Bay area who won the bid to be the home town for the new Florida A&M University law school.

Local competition often is all for the good. The Tampa Bay area is not Disney-dominated Orlando. Orlando is not the coastal Tampa Bay area. Vive la difference!

And awful I-4 remains far more of a barrier than a connector.

But times for cooperation between the two are on the rise. The metro areas still are in the flirting stage. And both are wondering:

Can we be bigger than the sum of our parts when we need to be?

If the answer is yes, that's a heck of a powerful option for Central Florida.

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

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