4 min read April 2022 — The Tampa Bay Partnership is a coalition of regional and not-for-profit business leaders, joined by a shared commitment to improving the personal and economic well-being of Tampa Bay residents. In an interview with Invest:, President and CEO Bemetra Simmons discussed changes in the region, transportation projects, the infrastructure bill, labor shortages, strategies to recruit and retain talent, the opioid crisis, and the outlook for the organization in the next two to three years.
What are some of the recent significant transformations you’ve seen in the region?
The things I’ve seen in the region during the past decade have been mainly regarding the growth itself. People around the country have discovered that Tampa Bay is the place to be. Our culinary scene has grown tremendously. We have great chefs and new restaurants opening all the time. There is an innovative DNA in our community. Companies are coming here such as Ark Investments and cybersecurity firms like Rapid 7. This is a great place for people to have a business and raise a family.
What issues need to be addressed to ensure sustainable growth of the region?
Transportation is a huge challenge. The Partnership does an annual report in collaboration with the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and United Way Suncoast to measure the Tampa Bay region against 19 other peer and aspirational markets. We’ve been doing this for the past five years, and we remain last every year in transit options. The first thing we must do is get people out of the mindset that the only way to go somewhere is by grabbing your keys and getting into your car. Changing the idea that public transportation is for students and lower-income people will allow us to increase the push for transportation solutions.
As a partnership, we are focused on transportation that can connect our counties such as, for example, the 41-Mile Regional Rapid Transit (or RRT), a dedicated-guideway bus that connects six major activity centers across three counties (Pasco, Pinellas, and Hillsborough) within the region. We are paying attention to Brightline; it will be a game-changer because of the convenience of connecting three of the most populous communities in Florida. We are looking at everything from ferry services to getting our existing transit agencies properly funded so they can be effective. Public transportation is important not only due to the convenience of moving people but also from an economic mobility perspective.
What are your expectations for the federal infrastructure bill?
The federal infrastructure bill represents a significant opportunity to bolster investment in this region. The biggest challenge to getting those dollars, as well as other competitive grants, is that many times you must have a local match to free them up. We are a unique community. We have multiple counties in the region, and everybody is competing to get them. From a partnership perspective, I believe we must look for what is best for the region; we are going to have to find ways to work together to figure out which projects we should do first, and that means we need elected officials to look at us from a regional lens and not a county lens. What happens in one county affects the other, so if we think of ourselves as individual counties instead of a region it is going to hurt our chances at unlocking federal dollars
Your organization has recently released a report on labor shortages. What is your assessment of the Great Resignation?
The Great Resignation in Tampa Bay is a trend that is most apparent among residents who work in hospitality and tourism. People have realized they don’t want to stand on their feet 12 hours a day and work 80 hours a week. Data shows that people aren’t leaving the workforce entirely; they are simply not going back to the type of jobs they had before.
At the same time, we are seeing that Tampa Bay is behind in getting 18- to 24-year-olds in the market; they are neither at school nor the workplace. This is a pressing issue stalling skills development that is necessary for their future. It can become a crisis if we don’t address it now.
It is hard to say which skills will experience more demand as the pandemic ends, since we are still in the middle of it. We will have to wait and see what jobs people are going back to and what jobs people are having trouble filling
From your interactions with the private sector, what are some strategies the local businesses are using to recruit and retain talent?
Right now, everything is on the table. The idea that banks would allow their managers to work from home would have been laughable five years ago. No reasonable president would allow it. Now, you understand that if you don’t have a flexible work schedule you can’t keep talent, and employees have more leverage than employers, so they are driving recruitment priorities. A survey done by McKinsey & Company showed that employees would rather take a $10,000 pay cut to have and keep a flexible schedule.
We are going to have to see what happens with commercial real estate. Office spaces will shift if folks decide to go remote permanently. In a survey we did, we found out that 80% of our businesses are going to some type of hybrid model. This will make an interesting market where companies will have to figure out how to pay employees depending on where they are located. It will be a difficult task.
What are some of the actions the organization has taken regarding the opioid crisis?
This is an issue we’ve been working on well before the pandemic. We have the goal of reducing the number of residents in the Tampa Bay area that are affected by overdoses and substance abuse by 50% over the next five years. We have formed a coalition with businesses, nonprofits and faith leaders to see what we can do together to combat this problem and lower the entries of treatment.
Fentanyl is a big issue in our community. Testing strips are a potential solution that will help identify unknown substances on paper wrappers, so if someone intends to smoke a joint they are not in danger of dying. Right now, having a testing strip is considered as having drug paraphernalia, so it is the equivalent of having a crack pipe on you. Additionally, we want to see legislation making it more difficult for someone to sell outside of sober houses. We believe it should be no different than a school zone.
What is your outlook for the organization for the next two to three years?
I’m very excited. I can’t think of any place I’d rather live, work, worship and play than Tampa Bay. First and foremost, we have perfect weather every day, but most importantly, this is the friendliest business community that I’ve ever worked in. People want to see you get involved, and they want to help you grow. There is an innovative DNA in this region. People want to be creative; we are agile and forward-thinking. The Partnership itself is an example of what Tampa Bay stands for. We are a privately funded organization, and we refuse government dollars. Instead, businesses and nonprofits are spending money from their budget to solve the most pressing issues of our region.
Transportation is our number one priority, followed by the workforce. With all the good things that are coming our way, and the secret being out, we are starting to have big community problems. Housing affordability is becoming a prevalent issue. The median home price in Tampa Bay in February 2020 was $255,000 and today it is $378,000, almost a 50% jump in two years. People might read this and think it is still cheaper than where they live, but the challenge is that our wages are not keeping up. If you have an average wage of $53,000 you can’t buy a house for $378,000. We need an all-hands-on-deck intervention to address this issue.
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