Tampa Bay Partnership group gives state legislators some economic development advice

05/08/12 Janelle Irwin
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During a meeting at the Tampa Bay Times Forum today, State legislators representing the region were given a list of issues members of the Tampa Bay Partnership thought should be made priorities. With Pinellas County considering a sales tax referendum for transit improvements, one group of business professionals told the 26 elected officials to ignore the “No Tax for Tracks” campaigns. Barry Alpert, managing investment director for Raymond James, said 40 years ago he could tell potential professionals looking to move to the Tampa Bay area that transportation was getting better. Now he’s not so sure.

“It took approximately 40-minutes to get from Countryside to St. Petersburg then and today, during rush hour, it takes even longer even though US 19 is a limited access highway. U.S. Home would buy an attractive land anywhere in our region and the government would assist them to build a road to it. The green benches are now gone from Central Avenue and St. Pete is a wonderful, active town, yet it’s difficult to get there.”

But despite his concerns about the lack of progress so far, Alpert’s confident that infrastructure in the region can be revitalized. But according to him, it would take coordination across city and county lines. The initiative in Pinellas would use a combination of buses and potentially light rail to connect Clearwater, Gateway and downtown St. Petersburg and eventually could connect Pinellas to Tampa International Airport. Alpert said the quality of transportation is one of the most common concerns among people and businesses looking to move into the area.

“When I look over the parking lot of Raymond James, I see license plates from as far south as Sarasota county, as far north as Pasco, as far east as Polk. Our 3500 employees drive great distances everyday because they have no alternative.”

All Alpert and other members of the Tampa Bay Partnership asked of state legislators was to keep an open mind about transit plans. But another group did have some requests. Steve Mason chairs One Bay Community Health. He called on the delegation to do figure out how to stabilize the state’s Medicaid and other healthcare funding.

“As we look at the number of Medicaid individuals, we have about 21% of the state of Florida’s Medicaid population that we know – that are enrolled. We don’t know the number exactly on how many of those are eligible.”

After reeling off a list of health conditions in Florida that surpass national averages including diabetes and obesity, Mason said he wants the state to find ways to put more money into healthcare.

“rather than this approach of looking at how much do we cut, or how little do we cut. That’s an exercise in futility in our opinion. It wastes vital time, your time, and it wastes vital time for a strong economic part of the community. You know, Einstein’s definition of insanity – keep doing what you’re doing over and over and expect a different result, that ain’t happening.”

Brandon Senator Ronda Storms, a Republican, rebutted that by implying Food Stamps should limit what foods can be purchased. Taking out the junk food, she argued, would cut down on obesity, diabetes and subsequently Medicaid costs. And Republican Senator Mike Bennett from Bradenton flat out said no to the request.

“But it’s up to you all to bring all those vendors and give us some ideas on change. I can guarantee you – it happens every year – the FMA, they come forward and they make the pitch for their money. The mental health people come forward and make the pitch for their money. The hospitals come forth and make the pitch for their money. Everybody is worried about their money.”

Bennett also fired back his own cost saving ideas.

“The Legislators in the state of Florida have not expanded the scope of practice to let nurse practitioners do what they do in 48 other states. That alone would save $500 million in Medicaid expense for the state of Florida. If we were to allow optometrists to do what they do in 49 other states, that’s another $100 million. And yet we get in these little fights because the medical community is made up of a whole bunch of individual specialties, but none of them speaking as one voice.”

And from the provider’s side of healthcare, Tampa Bay Partnership’s applied medicine committee chair, Chris Paradies wanted to fund a program that would encourage doctors to give their patients access to applicable clinical trials. He said not only can the treatments be better, the payout is a lot more than what state and federally funded health insurance could offer for treatments.

“Once they find out that they can make twice as much as they make on Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements, they’re enthusiastic about it. It helps them make their bottom line. It helps them actually make their budget.”

The plan is to create a resource for physicians in the Tampa Bay region to access information about what clinical trials are available. Paradies is asking for a half a million dollars to roll it out.

“For completing the asset map and rolling it out and making sure it’s available to everyone in the region – all the planners at the county, city, local levels.”

But that wasn’t the only hand out in the crowd. Tonya Elmore, president of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center asked for $100 million dollars over the next two years to create training centers that pump out professionals who can attract both businesses and venture capitalists. She calls them “incubators” and said the region doesn’t have enough – only two compared to Central Florida’s ten. Elmore added that it’s a worthwhile expenditure to keep what businesses already operate out of the area – unlike her friend who moved his up and coming business to California.

“Thanks for the heads up. We’ll use that information as we gear up for Mac World. I definitely miss you guys and I miss the Tampa tech community. Charles moved last year to pursue funding for his company, but he didn’t want to.”

Each of the so-called “incubators” would cost an estimated $27 million dollars to build. Elmore suggested a dollar for dollar match between state funding and private investments to drive the cost down for taxpayers. But she also said the end results would be worth the money for Tampa Bay residents and professionals. That initiative is part of a bigger economic development plan to create an additional 300,000 jobs over the next several years.

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