What’s next for the Tampa Bay Partnership?

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Following the announcement that Stuart Rogel is stepping down from the Tampa Bay Partnership, the question now is: who takes over, and where does the Partnership go from here?

While John Scheuler will succeed Rogel on an interim basis, the Partnership will undertake a national search for a new leader (and Rogel isn’t actually leaving the organization until next March).

“There’s no crisis, but there is a sense of urgency,” says Brian Lamb, the Partnership’s new chairman, who just took over his position in the past few weeks. “We will conduct a national search to find the best and brightest, that have a demonstrated track record around economic development, and have been in models where that region has performed exceptionally well around economic development.”

The Partnership’s footprint includes the eight-county, 6,515-square-mile area of west central Florida that includes Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, and Sarasota counties and the metro areas of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Bradenton, Sarasota-Venice, Lakeland-Winter Haven and Homosassa Springs. Among the regional initiatives it’s undertaken in recent years has been transportation, searching for a new baseball park for the Rays and a business plan for increased job creation and greater economic diversification.

Rogel has been the only CEO of the organization since it’s creation in 1994, so starting anew includes creating an opportunity for the Partnership to create something of a new identity, which Lamb admits says he’s looking forward to.”I’m very excited about the next 20 years for the Partnership.”

Rogel says that over the course of his two-decade plus career he’s considered moving on, but insists that a recent bout of criticism following Greenlight Pinellas’ blowout defeat at the polls had nothing to do with his decision making process. “It’s the right time for me and my family,” says the 60-year, adding that whenever a new chair comes on to lead the organization he spends time discussing a possible transition.

Rogel was in charge of fundraising for Greenlight, and by all measures did a good job at that, as the Yes on Greenlight PAC raised over a million dollars. But it lost big-time at the polls earlier this month, as did the transit tax that Hillsborough County voters rejected in 2010, which Rogel and the Partnership was also involved with in terms of fundraising. That’s led some of his foes to speculate that his leadership was an issue. But polls indicate that the majority of Pinellas County residents rejected the measure because they wanted nothing to do with supporting a tax, leaving others to quickly come to his defense.

“Its’s a big loss,” says Beth Leytham, a Tampa political and media consultant who worked with Rogel in recent weeks leading up to today’s announcement. “I think that there has been detractors who have been mean spirited, and unnecessary.”

“The truth of the matter is is that they can only do what politicians give them,” said Connect Tampa Bay’s Kevin Thurman. “All the Partnership did was raise money. And last time I checked, they raised a lot of money,” adding the Partnership were significantly more involved in the 2010 Moving Hillsborough Forward initiative, which did slightly better at the polls than did Greenlight.

But the drumbeat for change seemed to accelerate last week after an uncharacteristically critical piece on Rogel’s leadership was published in the Tampa Bay Times by business columnist Robert Trigaux that mentioned other local leaders like the EDC’s Rick Homans and Tampa International Airport’s Joe Lopano, with the implication being that Rogel didn’t match up. And his gaudy salary ($458,965 in 2012) certainly made him a target as well.

One of those critics who insisted on remaining anonymous told SaintPetersBlog today said,  “The Partnership can be much more successful with new leadership,” and referred specifically to the growth of the Central Florida Partnership under Jacob Stuart. “He’s almost single-handedly driving the economy of the region there.”

Regarding the question of leadership, Rogel says that the organization “is always  looking to be a much more powerful force, and to be a more powerful  influencer of those issues that are critical to this marketplace. That’s something that as an organization that is learned, and as individuals you have to find the right balance.

Unlike local Chambers of Commerce or economic development organizations, the metrics for judging the value of an organization like the Tampa Bay Partnership is more nebulous. Although there are a number of achievements the organization has under its belt over the past two decades, chairman Brian Lamb (whose day job is as Fifth Third Bank’s top area executive) says it’s more of a messaging problem, leading the public to be in the dark on such matters.

“It’s real,” he says about that disconnect. “I do think it’s incumbent on us, we’ve got to continue to get better that people undertand our value proposition. Okay? Not only are we trying to drive to become an outstanding region, we want people to understand the value of that. So what you’re striking at is, do folks understand that the intangibles, the things that you might not see behind the scenes, how do we make that visible?”

As an example Rogel says that the Partnership was able to lure the New York-based pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb to Tampa initially by collecting information about the number of clinical drug trials in the region.

Regarding the Partnership itself, Leytham says, “I think that they have a lot of work to do. I think they have been working very hard on a new marketing message. I think they have a helluva strategic  plan already in place. And he was trying to figure out the best person to lead that was,  and I think he leaves some very big shoes to fill. I think they’ve got  some hard thinking to do. I think a lot of businesses will stand still a bit, and see what they should do relative to that organization. Not regionalism. But That organization.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.