Tampa Bay Editor Carl Cronan sat down with Tampa Bay business legend John Sykes for the cover story for this week's issue of the Gulf Coast Business Review. Included with the larger story are several "quick hit" responses to questions about the Tampa Bay area provided by Sykes. Those responses are posted below.
Oracle of Tampa: Sykes speaks about economy, baseball, rail
As the Gulf Coast region's closest answer to Warren Buffett, John Sykes commands the attention of the local business community whenever he speaks. He warns right away, though, that not everyone will be inclined to agree with him.
“I'll answer any question you have, but you may not always like the answer,” says the Tampa businessman and philanthropist, whose guidance and counsel are often sought in major city endeavors. (Remember Tampa's bid for the 2012 Olympics? Sykes was asked to chair that effort.)
At the request of the Gulf Coast Business Review, Sykes was asked to share his thoughts on a few current issues affecting the future of the city and region. Here are his edited comments:
• Economic development: “We're not going to come out of this downturn for some period of time, unfortunately. There are only three ways a city or business can emerge from a bad economy — build revenue, reduce costs or a combination of both. Businesses increase revenue by expanding. Cities have to raise taxes.
“Our community seems to sit back and wait for someone to show us interest, then go after them. We need to do what businesses do. We need planning — what kinds of business do we want, what do we want to be known for? USF has a strong medical component, so let's focus on that.
“Businesses today are trying to determine where they can go to reduce operating costs. Why not here? We don't have personal income tax, our housing is affordable and with 12% unemployment we have an available work force.”
• Local leadership: “I'm not too sure that the people of the greater Tampa Bay area are being realistic. Without expanding our business base, we are going to have to consider some additional taxes or fees. It may force our cities and counties to come together and impose regional taxes.
“We may need to consider consolidating our local governments, which has worked well for Jacksonville and other cities. I know that's not popular.
“We need leaders who can embrace new ideas and new thoughts, and be able to be a good salesperson for our community. We have a very narrow thinking in this area that if something is going to be in Hillsborough County, then Hillsborough County ought to pay for it. It's going to require new thinking as we move forward.”
• Rays stadium proposal: “What difference does it make where the baseball stadium is built? The entire region benefits from games. Football fans stay in Pinellas County even though those games are played in Tampa.
“It should be built in a downtown environment, and it should be built in Tampa. Studies have shown that large numbers of people from Tampa go to games. We also need hotels and restaurants within walking distance of the stadium. Accessibility is important.
“What it comes down to is not the best interests of Tampa or St. Petersburg, but those of the baseball team.”
• High-speed and light rail: “I'm a train buff, I love trains. I think we stick our heads in the sand if we continue to say we don't need rail as a means of transportation.
“We have a megalopolis forming along Interstate 4 (between Tampa and Orlando) and we will need something to tie it together. We've seen how commuter rail has worked in other parts of the U.S. and in Europe. What makes us think it won't work here?
“Rail might not serve this area in my lifetime, but you have to start planning for it long before you really achieve the benefits — and you need to be willing to pay for it.”
The full version of the story is available online as well (link).