Alliance aims to vitalize university area

SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE / QUINCY J. WALTERS

If one of the Tampa Innovation Alliance’s goals is to bring community leaders together, then Friday’s kickoff was a promising first step in a unified effort to vitalize the university area. 

In the atrium of USF Connect, business owners and government officials filled more than 150 seats as they listened to a series of pitches advocating the area as a place worth investing in. 

Mark Sharpe, the executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance and former Hillsborough County commissioner, said the alliance is less of a business opportunity and more of a “movement” for the area. 

“This economic development area could be globally recognized as the most innovative place, where the brightest talent around the world would want to come and work,” he said. “Not just be a place where people come during the day and go back home, but would instead come and stay because it’s exciting, with places to eat and shop.” 

The Tampa Innovation Alliance is spearheaded by USF, Busch Gardens, Moffitt Cancer Center and Florida Hospital. Though already composed of this area’s major economic giants, the alliance still wants other businesses of any size to join in a singular vision of the area. 

Frank Chillura, mayor of Temple Terrace, said businesses and local government could join together to rebrand Temple Terrace. Instead of considering Temple Terrace just a place one goes through to get to USF or Busch Gardens, he said it could be unified to become a cultural highlight of Tampa.

“There’s been a talk of a unified front for years,” Chillura said. “Downtown has it, Westshore has it, but this part of town has never had it. If we have one voice, we’ll get so much more done.” 

Dormant resources in Temple Terrace, such as a 262-acre plot of land, could be used for new businesses. The area has also received grants from the city in the last few years to improve the landscape, making the area a more attractive place to live in.

Chillura also talked about pedestrian pathways and bicycle trails that make Temple Terrace accessible. He said that a city rail is still in the talks, and that USF would be one of the main stops of the rail. 

Current advantages of the area were discussed, such as the tourist-friendly location, with traffic coming from I-275 and visitors going to Busch Gardens.

Busch Gardens President Jim Dean said the university area is located strategically between Orlando, which is the largest tourist destination in the world, and some of the best beaches in the world.

“We’re in the perfect spot to drive tourism from all of the world,” Dean said. 

For small business startups, the cost of real estate in the area is some of the cheapest in the region, one business owner mentioned. 

Westshore Pizza co-owner, Paul Samson, said businesses need to keep in mind a large student base and their demands, such as pizza.

But many agreed that students were not just the consumers in the area, but could also feed back into the area with their innovation and talent. 

“We’ve got to get students engaged, because students are going to be the ones who drive this ultimate goal,” said student body president Jean Cocco. “Students should be the priority in this alliance.”

Some business owners already in the area said the university not only provided business, but also a large pool of interns. 

However, a challenge is convincing students to stay in the area instead of taking their skills somewhere else once they graduate.

“To keep our kids here to unleash their potential, we need to have a job strategy,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman. “We can’t lose our kids to other states, other businesses … we need to keep them here in Hillsborough.”

Many business owners and government officials acknowledged other challenges.

One of the reasons there’s a need for the alliance is the lack of communication between leaders in the area, and therefore no focused strategy for improving the area. 

Sansom said Westshore Pizza had to go through yards of red tape to partner with USF. He gave the example of having to go through 17 different divisions and talking to 24 different people just to pitch the idea of students using dining dollars for pizza deliveries.

Tampa Councilwoman Lisa Montelione said a huge challenge is considering how businesses market in polar opposite demographics. She also mentioned the reputation Temple Terrace has for poverty and crime.

“I have the privilege to serve some of the richest people and some of the poorest people in the city,” she said. “(The area) has a negative reputation; it’s a challenge to overcome that.” 

Others noted that though there is a largely educated population in the university area, there is also a high percentage uneducated people who find it hard to obtain a job.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist said the alliance, by connecting neighborhoods with businesses, would provide the opportunity to pull the area out of poverty.

“The richest people, the poorest people. The biggest houses, the smallest houses … all within walking distance,” Crist said. “If there’s one simple thing we need to do, that’s focus on stabilization, which will reduce crime and increase business opportunities with jobs at all different levels.”

Pathfinder Group Manager John Foster, who helps family businesses manage risks, said a practical first step is to link businesses together by allowing shared services.

“We can make those handshakes possible,” Foster said.

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