Tampa-St. Pete needs to change its pitch in order to attract businesses and skilled workers, according to tech entrepreneur Tony DiBenedetto.
“We talk about paying no income tax and cheap labor and affordable housing and great weather. I think that strategy doesn’t work anymore,” said DiBenedetto, co-founder and former CEO of Tribridge, a technology services firm, and entrepreneur-in-residence at Tampa Bay Wave. “I’ve always thought we should be selling the quality of this area.”
DiBenedetto ticked off the selling points the area should highlight when he spoke during Trenam Law’s Business Trends 2019 event Wednesday in Tampa. DiBenedetto, Tim Bogott, the CEO of Trade Winds Island Resorts, and Scott Curtis, president of the private client group at Raymond James, took part in a wide-ranging panel discussion that touched on the state of the local and national economy, workforce issues, transportation and the impact of climate change on real estate deals.
For DiBenedetto, who sits on several local tech company boards, an important aspect of economic development is the vibrant business community in the area.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and in 30 years this market has changed dramatically. We now support entrepreneurs at a pace we never have. There’s more capital. For tech people, if it doesn’t work out with one startup there are others. There’s medium-size firms and larger firms. There is a better ecosystem,” he said.
One advantage is the sheer size of the Tampa-St. Pete area.
“We have a large region here. We are acting more like a region and less like an individual city. When I first came here, it was St. Pete against Tampa and there’s still a little of that, depending on the kind of business you are in. But to me it’s just one big metro area. The more that comes together, I think that’s a selling point,” DiBenedetto said. “I think our educational institutions are getting better and better and better. I would sell that part. This is a great place to start a business. The entrepreneurial spirit and collaboration in this community, the kind of people who help you start a business here and have been involved with 20 or 30 businesses here and they’ve all gone well — that’s something we can sell.”
In addition, people in Tampa-St. Pete are nice, Curtis said. “It is different than other locations. I really believe that. People are nicer here,” Curtis said.
“We just have to say it better,” DiBenedetto added. “We can all go, yeah, people are nice. We’ve seen that. But it’s capturing the spirit of that collaboration. How do you put that in marketing terms that gets a guy in Michigan going, ‘I might do a lot better there. I’ll have a better family situation. I’ll have better schools and a better life there.’ How do we sell that?”
Moderator Bradley George, news reporter and host at WUSF, asked panelists about their economic outlook.
For the short term, the economy seems strong, DiBenedetto said. Long term is less certain.
“We’ve seen a bit of a pullback in money flowing into investments that are more at risk. People are interested in a greater amount of certainty,” Curtis said. “There’s more discretionary money flowing into shorter-term guaranteed investments than we’ve seen in the last five years.”
Bogott said there are lots of positive indicators including low unemployment, but also concerns.
“We are 11 years into our recovery here and there’s this expectation that we have to have some sort of pullback. I think that may be one of the most probable reasons there will be some pullback — just the expectation, if nothing else,” Bogott said.
The biggest challenge the Trade Winds faces is finding enough workers, Bogott said. At Raymond James, there are about 350 open positions, most at the company’s St. Petersburg headquarters. Many of the jobs require special skills, but some are entry level positions, Curtis said.
At tech companies, the worker shortage has put pressure on wages. DiBenedetto said many positions now pay 40 percent to 50 percent more than four or five years ago.
Transportation and public transit also are challenges for the Tampa-St. Pete area.
“Where Raymond James is headquartered [in the Carillon Office Park], most people have to get into a car and drive. We just created another parking lot for another 300 or so vehicles because our parking lots were full. When it comes to where are the attractive places to work and what are the things that attract people to certain places, I think a short commute is better,” Curtis said.
Transportation is very important, Bogott said. He said he was unhappy with former Gov. Rick Scott for rejecting federal funds that would have built a high-speed rail project between Tampa and Orlando.
“My view was that if that had been extended to the beaches it would have more than paid for itself and been a huge benefit overall,” Bogott said.
Trade Winds is planning an expansion, he said.
“We have about 30 acres and with the resolution of the density regulations in St. Pete Beach, we have the ability to add about 800 new units there. Bringing the capital to the table to make major improvements to Trade Winds and new density, new development, etc., that’s what’s coming for us,” Bogott said.
An audience member cited a study that said global climate change in Florida could have an impact on the willingness of financial institutions to write long-term mortgages on real estate.
“So far we have seen no evidence that lenders and others are concerned about that or even that buyers — in terms of buying beachfront property — are even thinking about that. It’s surprising to me. I don’t know what the timeline is before they do, but I have to think about it and be aware of it,” Bogott said.