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Florida's Regions Should Plan Growth Together

Traditionally, Florida's major regions pursue their own economic paths. If one region pays attention to what another is up to, it's most often for competitive reasons, not out of any sense of shared destiny.

Mark R. Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

But as Florida's regions have sprawled both physically and economically, they've begun rubbing against each other. That friction tends to blur old geographic and political boundaries. And what begins to emerge are the outlines of what urban theorist Richard Florida calls "mega-regions" — the concentrations of economic, civic and cultural institutions that will become magnets for the creative class and the nexus for most of the job-creation as this century progresses.

As super-regions take shape, collaboration among their communities will become a necessity rather than an option. To market itself, a region won't be able to leverage just its own seaport, its own airport, its own university, its own transportation system. To succeed, it will need to integrate its assets with others spread across a host of jurisdictions. This century's early economic winners will be the communities that most quickly figure out how to use that connectivity to solve regionwide problems.

A very important effort — possibly the first stab nationally at defining a super-region — is now playing out between the main economic development groups in Tampa Bay and central Florida.

Stuart Rogel, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, says that over the course of a decade his group had begun to develop a working relationship with the Central Florida Partnership as they worked on issues like developing the I-4 High-Tech Corridor and various transportation-related matters. The two regions remained at arm's length, however, until their efforts began to overlap in Polk County. Rather than butting heads, both saw a natural connection there that formed the basis for more formal cooperation, Rogel says.

In 2008, the Tampa Bay and central Florida groups decided to hold a joint leadership conference. "We were beginning to realize that the issues were becoming so big that we needed to work together as a super-region," Rogel says. What emerged from the conference was a decision to get some help in defining exactly what a super-region meant — and could mean — in economic terms. The groups decided to hire Jonathan Barnett, a professor in city and regional planning and director of the Urban Design Program at the University of Pennsylvania. An architect and planner as well, Barnett is a world-class authority with projects internationally in Cambodia and cities like Xiamen in China as well as New York, Cleveland, Charleston and Nashville.

The central Florida and Tampa Bay partnerships are asking Barnett and a class of his graduate students essentially to create an economic map of the 13-county area from Pinellas County on the west coast across the state to Volusia County. Ultimately, Rogel says, there are three main goals. The first is to put some definition into the notion of what the super-region is — "to catalog the assets and attributes of the region and help us understand from an economic development perspective what we need to do to take advantage of this." The second point, longer term, is to avoid "the kind of sprawling unlimited pattern that we've dealt with in this state and region." Third, Barnett's work is the first step to "true up" the two regions' visions: Dovetailing Tampa Bay's emphasis on prosperity with central Florida's focus on quality.

Barnett says he was attracted to the project because no one has ever taken on a similar effort with a 13-county scope. His group will focus initially on the transportation systems in the two regions — how they can be integrated and what effect they can have on population and job distribution in the super-region. "The role of our study is to provide a target for a year's worth of public involvement later," he says.

Barnett will present his regional conception at another joint conference next month. Also in May, according to Jacob Stuart, president of the Central Florida Partnership, the two groups want to announce the creation of an "Action Academy" that will bring together leaders from around the super-region, "immerse them" in the project and work toward developing a plan for implementing essential regionwide priorities.

The project has taken on an added sense of urgency since late January, when President Obama announced initial funding for a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando. Stuart says working through a plan for the rail link is exactly the kind of practical challenge that requires super-regional thinking. The rail project, he says, will put the two groups' work "both in the spotlight and under the microscope." But ultimately, Stuart adds, "it's not just about the rail connection; it's about connecting our workforces, education systems, healthcare and the full range of assets in the region."

The true test of any kind of planning process, of course, is whether it can truly translate to the rubber-meets-the-road level — decisions by private real estate developers, local zoning boards, county and city commissions and other economic development groups. Case in point: Even as Barnett's high-minded report nears completion, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are engaging in some ugly infighting over the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team, which wants a new stadium. What should be a regional decision is playing out in the well-dug trenches of old city- and county-level economic rivalries and jealousies.

Still, Barnett's work — and how the two regions use it — is hugely important. Nothing good happens without leadership, and the central Florida and Tampa Bay groups are setting a good example for the rest of the state in trying to take collaboration to a new level. Stuart, who has become an icon of sorts for regional thinking, says, "I've been doing this for 26 years, and I've never been more excited about our future. It's a magical moment — it's absolutely incumbent upon our generation to lead or we will force the generation that follows us to react."

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