Local, state officials say "super region" idea could revive flailing state economy - and that rail would have helped

04/29/11 Kate Bradshaw
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High-speed rail may no longer be an option in Florida thanks to Governor Rick Scott. This isn’t stopping leaders from throughout the Tampa Bay area and along the I-4 Corridor from trying to revive local economies using a “super-regional” perspective. Hundreds of stakeholders met in downtown Tampa today to tackle the challenge of making the Central Florida Super-Region a reality.

The Tampa Bay and Orlando metropolitan areas are a little over an hour apart. Since the largest artery connecting the two is a gridlocked interstate, many see them as two separate, distinct regions. Some business and government leaders see economic benefit in changing that. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn opened today’s morning session of the 2011 Super Regional Leadership Conference.

It's time we stopped looking at artificial boundaries on a map as a barrier, or bridges across bays as obstacles. It's time we stopped putting parochial and political differences ahead of the common good. It's our turn. It's our time. This is our destiny.

The conference, hosted at the Tampa Convention Center by the Tampa Bay and Central Florida Partnerships, was a chance for stakeholders in both regions to brainstorm on ways to join forces in order to compete globally. Even as they painted a picture of a future full of innovation, sustainability, and economic development, the specter of Tallahassee leadership loomed large. Tampa Downtown Partnership President Christine Burdick said there may be no high-speed rail to connect Tampa to Orlando, but the super-region concept is alive and well.

What all of these exercises and our joint experiences have shown is the need and ability to set long-term goals and use stakeholders in the community to implement those goals.

Panelists included local political leaders, developers, and economic experts. State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy were among the event’s key speakers. CFO Atwater told the audience that while he thinks the super region concept will help the entire state climb out the hole it’s in, Florida has some tough challenges to contend with.

We have individuals in this room and all over Florida, entrepreneurs saying, "I can't get access to credit." Well you have an unemployment rate so far above the national average that it can't come as a surprise. Starting now, slowly to move down. And with that unemployment hovering, over the last year, at 12.5 percent, we find ourselves with 345,000 homes in Florida, residential homes, on the market due to foreclosure.

Orlando Developer Craig Ustler said the statistics show economic sustainability lies in developing a super-region connected by a well-conceived public transit network.

The economic trans-social trends, demographic trends, are overwhelmingly showing us that the future is a super-region of nodes that are interconnected by transit.

Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano said when it comes to planning, the predominantly rural county is shunning the development model relying on a single urban core. Instead, he said, Pasco planners want to go with smaller pockets of development along key transit corridors.

Everyone says a city needs to grow from a core, radiate out. Well, we're a big county so we don't have quite that core, but we've set up several cores along the way where we want to focus our development.

Even before the governor eighty-sixed high-speed rail, Hillsborough County voters turned down a sweeping transit overhaul that would likely have included light rail. Political analysts say this was more due to voters’ opposition to the sales tax increase it would have required. Florida CFO Jeff Atwater, a Republican, told WMNF that a region needs to focus on cultivating its intellectual product before worrying about how to move people around.

The focus has to be on the intellectual knowledge, the capacity to have those kinds of outstanding universities and research centers, and from that, transportation challenges will be addressed and overcome, but you have to begin with, what is going to be the product?

Still, developers and local officials held strong on the idea that a livable community will attract a high-caliber work force – as long as they can fund projects like rail and transit-oriented development. Developer Roxanne Amoroso is working to move downtown Tampa’s mixed-use Encore project forward. She said a pooling of resources is needed to get such mass scale projects off the ground.

You cannot make master development work in today's society without going after federal, state, city, county, and private investment, all simultaneously.

This runs into trouble when state and federal budgets cut grant money earmarked for such projects. Atwater said creativity and a pooling of local resources can make up for it. A key example of this, he said, is University of Central Florida’s medical school. In its inaugural year, it recruited candidates from across the globe by offering its first 40 students a free ride. Medical school dean Deborah German was able to raise the $6.4 million to cover tuition for 40 medical students in under a year through donations from various organizations. Atwater said that kind of community engagement can accomplish anything.

A community still has to decide, make local decisions, and as I made mention, it took nothing from Tallahassee and state government to determine that University of Central Florida's med school would quickly have the highest-caliber students. They decided locally to gather financial support from businesses and generous individuals, and funded scholarships for an entire medical degree.

Still, like any other state university, UCF relies heavily on state funding. The state legislature is poised to slash funding for the state university system. Some state universities are considering raising tuition as much as 15 percent. It’s undetermined what kind of impact such tuition hikes would have on local economies, let alone the overarching super region many officials hope to forge.

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