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Leaders talk economic, environmental sustainability before resiliency summit

Mark Parker

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A group of manatees congregate outside of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council comprises leadership from Citrus to Manatee County. Photo by Mark Parker.

For the last 60 years, the Tampa Bay Planning Council has convened the region, from Citrus to Manatee County, to support decision making, economic development, preparedness and – perhaps most important to this slice of Florida’s Gulf Coast – environmental resiliency.

The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council (TBRPC) and its Regional Resiliency Coalition are bringing together a “who’s who” of area business, political and environmental leaders for its second Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Leadership Summit. Held April 5 – 6 at the Hilton Carillon Park Hotel in St. Petersburg, the event will include an unveiling of the final Regional Resiliency Action Plan (RRAP), an economic resilience report from the Tampa Bay Partnership, the 28th Annual Future of the Region Awards ceremony and a 60th anniversary celebration for the council.

In honor of the keystone event, TBRPC Executive Director Sean Sullivan and Regional Resiliency Coalition Co-Chair Janet Long, also a Pinellas County Commissioner, sat down with the Catalyst to discuss the work and concerns the summit showcases. Sullivan said the idea for the council came from former St. Petersburg Mayor Herman Goldner, who realized the region could achieve so much more if it worked together rather than on a county or city basis. That idea, Sullivan said, led to Florida’s first regional planning council.

“We have accomplished a lot; there’s a whole litany of accomplishments we can mention,” he said. “But specifically, today, resilience, emergency management, economic development, environmental stewardship – those are really our highlighted areas.”

Sean Sullivan, executive director for the TBRPC. The organization, Florida’s first, is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Photo provided.

Sullivan added that the council is only successful when elected officials like Long offer support and policy direction. Rep. Ben Diamond, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard are among the many local civic leaders scheduled to speak at the event.

Long said the summit builds awareness of environmental concerns throughout the entire region, and organizers focus on presenting the programming in a way that educates. She said it also provides insight into how communities throughout Tampa Bay react to the region’s shared problems, noting that a major storm would likely affect the council’s six-county purview.

Long referenced Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that decimated the Florida Panhandle with sustained winds of 161 mph in October 2018. She said a similar storm would “be a trillion times more damaging” to this area of the state.

“Just because we have so many of the huge resorts, and so much of our economy is built on the way in which our coastline has built out,” she said. “That is devastating to a community, and if that happened up and down the coastline, I don’t know how we would recover from that very quickly.”

Sullivan called the release of the Tampa Bay Partnership’s economic report a highlight of the summit’s first day. Brian Auld, president of the Tampa Bay Rays and Chair of the Resiliency Task Force, will lead the presentation. Sullivan said it made sense for both organizations to showcase the report at the summit, and it provides perspective on the far-reaching impacts of climate and resiliency.

In addition to storms, Long said an increase in droughts and heat also have devastating impacts on the local economy. She noted that the rise in wildfires and temperatures reaching 100 degrees negatively affects key regional industries such as tourism and construction, and makes maintaining the region’s many parks more challenging.

Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition Co-Chair and Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said she considers how every decision impacts her grandchildren and great-grandchild. Photo provided.

Many people do not realize the effects of warming temperatures, she said, due to the omnipresent necessity that is air conditioning in Florida. She added that the relief air conditioning provides is dependent on fuel and power, and significant weather events disrupt access to both.

“It is also not lost on me that it (increasing temperatures) has a tremendous impact on our health … ,” said Long.

Long said she has “five of the most beautiful grandchildren you could ever imagine,” and one of them recently blessed her with her first great-grandchild. The matriarch said she thinks of them before making any policy decisions, and ensuring she leaves them with the ability to enjoy the region’s wealth of natural resources is one of her greatest concerns.

People, said Long, are quick to make decisions without thinking through the unintended consequences that later affect future generations. She said she has witnessed the consequences of poor decision-making and that she is old enough – and hopefully wise enough – to realize the benefits of planning for the future rather than the moment.

Sullivan echoed Long’s comments, stating that living in such a beautiful area of the country comes with an added responsibility to protect the surrounding environment and its current and future residents. Sea level rise, hotter summer days, increased storm surge, and more frequent and intense storms are all undeniable, he said, and the key is to prepare now.

For Sullivan, one of his greatest environmental concerns is the region’s residents becoming complacent after going a century without a major storm making landfall. He relayed that 101 years ago, a hurricane hit Tarpon Springs, causing widespread damage to an area with 400,000 residents.

“Today, there are 3.8 million people in the region,” said Sullivan. “A direct hit from a Cat 5 would be catastrophic – not only from the loss of life, but it would obliterate our economy as we know it.

“So, we have a responsibility to protect, to help governments and businesses work to become more resilient.”

For more information on the 2022 Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Leadership Summit, visit the website here.

 

 

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