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Roundup 5-24-2013

May 24, 2013

Hillsborough Transportation – Life in the Slow Lane

This week the politicians of Hillsborough County and the municipalities therein met to address an issue that, based on the outcome of the meeting, apparently arose out of the blue – transportation.  After much hoopla, they determined that transportation is important.

At Wednesday’s meeting, participants generally agreed that there is a need for an investment in the county’s transportation system.

Hey, that’s a start.  Anything else?

They also accepted a premise, driven by the county, that the ultimate priority list should get shaped by projects that promote economic development around the county but in targeted areas where growth is desirable.

Well, that is suitably vague.  If by that they mean that a transportation system should connect areas of activity so people can get where they want to go and not promote a sprawling mess, great.  If they mean they are going to continue with the sprawl-centered policies of the County, not so great.

So what was proposed?

While there were no votes, the participants also agreed to begin discussing where to focus future investments and that, after that, what sorts of transportation projects should be pursued. Once that work is done, they’ll start talking about how to pay for them.

So with years and years of underinvestment in the transportation in a county with clearly identifiable nodes of activity which conveniently are not that far from each other and at least a month’s notice of the “summit,” the leaders of Hillsborough County could not say what should be connected and/or how they should be connected?  (We bet many of the young professionals who leave could tell them.)

So what did the participants have to say? The Mayor brought his best effusively noncommittal comments:

Part of the transit sales pitch will tie it to the region’s economic future. Cities that invest in transit have attracted the kind of tech-savvy, innovative young workers commissioners and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn say they want.

“I’m all in,” Buckhorn told the group. “If there ever was a time to do this, it is right now. I think people are ready for a serious adult discussion of what our options are.”

We’re all in, too.  Just one question, all in for doing what exactly?  Maybe someone else can help us:

“There’s no mystery that I want to get it done,” said Sharpe, who leaves the commission in 2014 due to term limits, describing what he took from Wednesday’s discussion. “But rather than starting with a conversation about how we’re going to pay for it, let’s determine what it is first.”

It is reasonable to know what you are going to do before you work out how to pay for it (unlike the 2010 referendum).  Too bad no one apparently was willing to say what the “it” should be, which, in fact, does mean there is somewhat of a mystery.

One thing we do know:

“The important thing is we wanted to have all of our partners at the table at one time,” Hagan said. “Everything is on the table, but I seriously doubt there will be a Hillsborough County referendum in 2014.”

Interestingly, we actually agree with that assessment – at least the timing.  But, at this point, nothing has been put on the table.  On the other hand, because it seems no one is actually willing to be the first person to propose something concrete, there is no way there can be a referendum in 2014 that would have a reasonable chance of succeeding.

Maybe the lack of willingness to get to the point arises from this persistent myth about the 2010 referendum:

The 2010 vote split largely along the city boundary, with Tampa supporting it.

This is the map of results which actually show the real results.  The support was near the vaguely planned rail route, which happened to be in the city, though it lost in many precincts in the city and won in county precincts near its path.  That actually indicates that, if people think they are paying for something that will never benefit them, they will likely not support it.  Which makes this a more accurate reading of the lessons from 2010:

“If we’re going to put something on the ballot, we need to make sure everyone understands what their benefits are going to be,” Miller said.

So true.  Maybe this time around the politicians and planners will actually be concerned about the entire county and provide a plan that addresses it, even if it is a staged execution.  Of course, none of that will happen if the politicians don’t propose something, anything other than just subsidizing sprawl (see Hillsborough County Commission.)

The headlines of both the Times and Tribune articles referred to the meeting attendants as leaders.  Maybe they should start leading and say what they would like to see.

The fact is this discussion transit has been going on since at least the 1980’s.  We have already lost a couple of generations of talent to delay.  From the meeting, it looks like the Hillsborough leaders are fine with losing another, though we are open to being surprised. (And they are supposed to create an innovation destination?)

Transportation – Wow, You Mean You Can Ride a Boat?

While the local leaders we unable to think of (or too timid to propose) any specific ideas on transit, this week someone else officially proposed an alternative means of transportation – a ferry.

A nationally regarded water transportation company has stepped forward to operate a high-speed ferry service for the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

HMS Ferries Inc., whose companies carry more than 16 million passengers annually from multiple ferry services in the Seattle area to cruises serving Alcatraz and Niagara Falls, announced preliminary plans Wednesday for a project that could provide high-speed ferry service here in about two years.

The concept would be based on core morning and late-afternoon commuting runs between south Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base, providing a transportation option for 5,300 military families that could take thousands of cars off roadways and save commuters 30 minutes of driving time. The ferries would carry passengers, not their cars.

The same catamaran-type vessels, capable of speeds as fast as 35 knots, would be available to operate on weekends and possible midweek, off-peak hours between St. Petersburg and sites to be determined in Tampa. Those routes could serve events at the Forum, the Tampa Convention Center and Tropicana Field with shuttle service.

The proposal website is here.

What will it cost the taxpayer?

Transit ferries normally require a subsidy to operate, Dronkert said. But in the case of the MacDill commuter route and other runs built around that service, preliminary studies indicate the privately held company could successfully operate without local or state subsidies for operations, with HMS taking any risk for annual operating costs, estimated to be about $3.5 million at the onset.

Most ferry services use public-sector terminals, docks and facilities, just as airlines use public-sector airports, so the next step toward making the ferry plan feasible would be for a local entity, perhaps the county government, to seek federal funding for infrastructure.

Ferries operate all over the place, but not here (unless you are going from Ft. De Soto to Egmont Key).  We have no idea if the proposal’s numbers actually work out (apparently the MPO studied it the concept – though not this specific proposal – and, according to them, there is some potential), but the idea appears at first blush to have some merit.  It should certainly be considered, especially if the federal government will fund the infrastructure.  On the other hand, something not to be considered is this:

“I think this has got some sex appeal to it,” Buckhorn said.

Huh?  It is a ferry not a trip into space.  Sex appeal has nothing to do with it, especially for all the commuters that ride ferries every day around the world.

One thing that comes to mind though – it would seem like the project requires a lot of parking in the South County area for commuters taking the ferry.  If this project happens, is there just going to be a big parking lot or will the County actually do something forward thinking about the hub of activity they are creating in the South County?

One other thing: We have no problem with the idea of ferries.  On the other hand, it has to be remembered that this would only be a very small part of what should be an integrated transportation system that involves real, land based transit.  Don’t think that a ferry will fix what is broken.  It is only a small piece.

HART/PSTA – Bring On the Study

We had previously noted that the HART Board has asked the Governor to veto the second study of how to make HART and PSTA more efficient.  We also noted that PSTA was in favor of the second study.  In a Times article regarding what the Governor did and did not veto, we learned:

Sen. Jack Latvala’s request that the state spend $200,000 on a consolidation study of the Pinellas and Hillsborough transit agencies made it out alive, but officials in Hillsborough would rather it hadn’t. The board of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit system has repeatedly voiced its objections to discussing consolidation with the Pinellas agency, calling Latvala’s intervention a power grab and citing concern that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is underfunded.

Good.  Now let’s get on with it, and, given the opposition of the HART Board to looking at ways to save taxpayer money while providing better service, we still think the entire process needs outside oversight.

Channelside – Back to the Beginning

After much hype (and not much detail) about the Liberty Channelside proposal for the Channelside complex, then some apparent fireworks during negotiations, then apologies for the mysterious fireworks, the whole thing came to naught this week.

The latest bid to revive Channelside Bay Plaza was cut off at the knees Tuesday by an unlikely culprit: the Tampa Port Authority itself.

A new ownership group, Liberty Channelside LLC, had struck a deal to buy the failed downtown retail center from the Irish bank that owns it. But the port board has the final say because the 234,520-square-foot complex was built on port land.

No deal was ready for the board to consider. The two sides were millions of dollars apart in escrow negotiations, which turned hostile. Liberty vowed to keep at it.

But the board was done. Members voted unanimously to kill the deal.

How could they scuttle a sale that wasn’t finished, that wasn’t even ready for them to consider yet?

They voted to flex their power to kill the other deal: Liberty’s agreement to buy the Channelside lease from the Irish Bank Resolution Corp. for undisclosed millions.

“We don’t like it,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who sits on the board. “We need to tell the bank we’re rejecting this proposal.”

So what was the logic of using this maneuver?

The board didn’t like that port staffers had spent “hundreds of hours” negotiating but no deal was at hand. Liberty also had yet to produce numerous requests for financial information. Liberty said it was still working on that, but the board decided not to waste any more time.

And

By stopping the Liberty deal in its tracks, the Tampa Port Authority board hoped to send two messages:

To any developers who want to tackle the Channelside project: Bring your “A” game, and lots of cash. The port doesn’t believe Liberty was willing to spend enough.

To the Irish Bank Resolution Corp.: Do a better job of finding the right suitor who can turn Channelside around.

The port isn’t going to accept just any deal the Irish bank makes for Channelside, said board chairman William “Hoe” Brown, not after all these years of financial and legal turmoil. Reviving Channelside is key to helping realize the potential of the Channel District.

“What we’re going to do as a board here is what’s best for our city,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the price someone’s paying the bank. We’ll do what we think is right and proper for Channelside.”

and

Might the port even consider buying Channelside at a steep discount, as Liberty tried to do? Anderson wouldn’t rule that out. Channelside’s last appraisal in January was for $12 million, a far cry from the $27 million the Irish bank loaned the old owner to buy it in 2006.

There’s also the issue of escrow: Would a new suitor have to put up the same kind of money required of Liberty? Anderson said the port will still require proof of financial commitment.

This is all fine by us.  It is nice to have proposals, but the whole Channelside saga needs to be fixed once and for all.  It is ok to wait until we get the right project.

Economic Development – Crashing Out of Boot Camp

There was a story in the Times this week about a proposed start up boot camp.

A college dropout, Ressi went on to start at least eight businesses, including Total New York, a regional city guide that AOL bought in 1997 and turned into AOL/Digital Cities. Since starting Founder Institute in 2009 in — of course — a Palo Alto garage, Ressi travels incessantly and globally to hear startup pitches. He is quick to interrupt, mixing a veteran’s advice with sharp criticism (“I’ve only heard that same startup idea a hundred times this year” is a favorite) and plenty of humor.

Founder Institute was ready to claim a stake in Tampa Bay with its first boot camp. It had pitched itself as an international-caliber program for startups with strong potential, tough skin and sufficient obsession to make the cut. Area mentors from university business schools and other startup programs had been engaged and were standing by. And a Founder Institute graduate, serial entrepreneur Michael O’Donnell, already had moved here from Seattle. He was the one who liked what he saw in Tampa Bay and decided the institute could operate a local version here.

It was all systems go in March. But Founder Institute never launched.

It turns out, according to O’Donnell, that there were “not enough aspiring entrepreneurs qualified for the Founder Institute” in the Tampa Bay market. Failing to reach a minimum number of qualified candidates, the boot camp was canceled.

We do not decide who participates in the Founders Institute, but they had issues here.  It is fine to talk about developing a start up culture and all, but it is also interesting to have an outsider give an independent opinion of how you are doing. This evaluation did not go so well.

One alternative explanation was offered:

Another willing mentor and deeply involved entrepreneur here, John Morrow, says Tampa Bay has a “wide pipeline” of various startup programs under way that might have diluted the talent pool.

Maybe, but we have a hard time believing that the Tampa Bay area has vastly more programs than areas like Seattle or Denver, that have Founders Institute programs. (You can see all the locations of Founders Institute programs here.)

As the Times column said:

This is a good if harsh lesson for Tampa Bay. In the end, this region’s goal is really the same as Adeo Ressi’s: Creating more startup successes not only boosts economic recovery but creates more and better jobs at locally founded companies.

Yes it is a good lesson.  Yes, the goals are the same.  However, you cannot discount the possibility that, while we are moving forward, other areas are still moving forward faster, leaving us farther behind.

Economic Development – Chile

There was news that the Governor is going on a trade mission to Chile.

Chile is Florida’s seventh largest trade partner with nearly $7.7 billion in bilateral trade. Florida-origin exports to Chile have expanded by 53 percent in the last two years, and the state has experienced a two-way trade growth of 262 percent since the implementation of the U.S.-Chile Free Trade Agreement in January 2004, the governor’s office said.

More than 100 representatives from Florida businesses, higher education institutions, and other organizations to expand investment are expected to participate.

The news coverage was strangely devoid of Tampa Bay participants.  Maybe they are going but just aren’t reported.  We really don’t know, but the lack of mention is interesting. (Maybe it does not have the sex appeal of Brazil.)

While Chile’s growth slowed in the first quarter, Chile is one of the strongest economies in Latin America. (See here, here, and here)  It is hard for the Tampa Bay area to be a gateway to Latin America without strong connections to all its major economies.

List of the Week IA

This week we have two lists of the week, but they are allegedly for the same thing.

The first list is Business Insider’s List of 20 Most Innovative Cities in the US.  It is basically a list of the highest number of patents per 1000 residents, so it favors some university towns and small cities with research institutions, as well as the usual suspects.

First place goes to San Jose, followed by Burlington, VT; Rochester, MN; Corvallis, OR; Boulder, CO; Poughkeepsie, NY; Ann Arbor, MI; San Francisco; Austin; Santa Cruz, CA; Seattle; Raleigh; Rochester, NY; Durham, NC; Trenton, NJ; Sheboygan, WI; San Diego; Albany, NY; Ithaca, NY; and Minneapolis. Because of the calculation, some big cities have a hard time getting on the list but have a lot of patents and get an honorable mention: NYC, LA, Boston, and Chicago.

Of course, large or small, Florida is shut out.

List of the Week IB

Our second list is Techieboom.com’s The 5 Most Innovative US Cities of 2013  (cached here ) In no particular order they are Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Boulder, and Boston.

No Florida.

Don’t let the recent more positive news about the local economy lull you into complacency.

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