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Business support for the “sister city” plan? It’s complicated

An open letter published in the Tampa Bay Times this weekend reflects business support, but how comprehensive is the list?

Recently a group of Tampa area business leaders published a letter in the Tampa Bay Times declaring that “business leaders” support the “sister city” plan and vision for a new stadium in Ybor city that would host the Tampa Bay Rays as a part-time team.

The letter, signed by 39 local business leaders (38 men and 1 woman) alongside their institutional affiliations, also noted the endorsements of “three prominent regional Chambers [of Commerce]” whose support had been announced in November.

So, it sounds like the local business community is solidly behind this plan, right?

Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

This list of business supporters is impressive, but equally striking is the list of business and civic leaders not included here.

It can be hard to say just who the key leaders are in the Tampa Bay area. Unlike an Atlanta or a Chicago, we don’t have a long list of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Tampa Bay. Nevertheless, we can generate some ideas of the key corporate leadership in the region. Most such lists are similar upon a search online.

For example, the website Builtin Beta lists the largest Tampa Bay area companies “you should know” as the following:

  1. Tech Data - 14,700+ Employees
  2. Jabil - 39,100+ Employees
  3. WellCare Health Plans - 7,100+ Employees
  4. SYKES - 17,900+ Employees
  5. Raymond James - 13,000+ Employees
  6. The Mosaic Company - 3,300+ Employees
  7. HSN - 3,300+ Employees
  8. KnowBe4 - 950+ Employees
  9. JPMorgan Chase - 302,000+ Employees
  10. Rapid7 - 3,000 Employees

Any such company could be considered a potential sponsor of a new stadium in Tampa, if and when that is built. Of these companies, only Sykes and Raymond James are represented on the list of signees published over the weekend.

Furthermore, only two of the largest five banks in Tampa Bay, and two of the largest five law firms are represented on this list.

Interestingly, neither Ron Cristaldi, the co-chair of the last effort to build an Ybor stadium, nor his law firm (Schoemaker, Loop & Kendrick) are signatories. Indeed, Cristaldi appears to be a sister-city skeptic despite his previous efforts to lead the effort to bring the Rays to Tampa:

“....I don’t see a whole lot of connectivity between Montreal and Tampa. I haven’t seen any fiscal analysis, so I don’t know really whether it’s plausible or not. But it doesn’t seem to me to be the best choice.”
- Ron Cristaldi

Missing as well are the names of some very influential business interests. Neither Jeff Vinik nor the Bill-Gates-backed company undertaking the Water Street redevelopment in downtown Tampa are listed. Prominent businesspeople-turned-philanthropist families like the Morsanis and the Patels are missing as well.

Signatories identified with Publix, Lykes Insurance, TECO, the Trenam law firm, and Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) are all listed, but only individuals who are retired. It’s not clear, therefore, whether their support even represents the endorsement of their former employers.

Even the statements about the significance of the three Chamber endorsements is, on inspection, weaker than claimed.

The project does indeed have the endorsement of the “Tampa Bay Chamber,” which represents the Tampa/Hillsborough business community. But the two other endorsements are from the much smaller special interest chambers: the LGBT Chamber and South Tampa Chamber.

This means that other neighborhood/interest-based Chambers (e.g. Tampa’s Black Chamber, Hispanic Chamber, Ybor Chamber, West Tampa Chamber and North Tampa Chamber) have not issued statements of support thus far.

The Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional business organization that has taken a leadership role on key economic development issues and where Rays President Brian Auld sits on the Executive Committee, has not expressed support either.

Of course, we do not know who the Rays and their business community champions have approached for support, so we can’t say that the absence of declared support signals opposition to the plan.

Some corporations or civic groups may have policies prohibiting such endorsements, so they may be absent from these public announcements even if they may become supporters later on. But we know that the earlier Ybor plan stumbled, in part, because the local business community was not able to identify sponsorships that would make a Tampa stadium feasible, which makes any such endorsements of the smaller Sister City concept critical to its success.

The promise of half a team was already unlikely to get business and civic leaders more excited than they were for a full season. How significant, then, is the business support for this plan?

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