The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s annual State of the Bay luncheon has become appointment viewing for anyone who enjoys seeing politicians squirm. The nonpartisan civic organization dates back to 1978 but has recently gone through some changes, most notably handing over management duties to the St. Petersburg Group, the company that publishes the St. Pete Catalyst online news source.
What hasn’t changed is group members’ penchant for giving the third degree to Tampa Bay mayors, who for some reason keep showing up at the State of the Bay event to face a barrage of thorny questions about the big issues facing Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
The Jan. 9 event, held at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, was no different. But this time, officials gave as good as they got.
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, the lone Republican among the three mayors, was asked whether he would vote for his party’s presidential nominee in November. Initially he demurred, saying as an elected official, the only private vote he gets to cast is on Election Day.
But then Cretekos turned the question around on the audience, insisting the majority of people in the room supported President Donald Trump — as evidenced by the fact that Trump carried Pinellas County in 2016 — but were too embarrassed to admit it.
Boos, jeers and groans of disapproval greeted Cretekos' witty rejoinder.
Later, faced with a question about the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.’s unilateral and heavily criticized decision to change its name to the Tampa Bay Economic Development Corp., plus a similar branding change on the part of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman did not hold back.
“It’s a lesson in how not to roll something out,” Castor says, adding her recent discussions with both organizations “have not been the nicest.”
Kriseman says applying the “Tampa Bay” brand to organizations that promote only Tampa and Hillsborough is a massive setback to recent efforts to promote the region with one voice — like how Tampa and St. Pete teamed up on a joint bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. “It’s incredibly disappointing and was handled horribly,” he says. “Everybody was blindsided. There was no communication.”
The Tampa Bay Economic Development Corp. declined to comment on the controversy, but Tampa Bay Chamber President and CEO Bob Rohrlack addressed it — from a big-picture standpoint. "We are working on ongoing communication with our partners throughout the bay area," Rohrlack tells Coffee Talk. "We are committed to uniting Tampa Bay regardless of the confusion and feelings about the name change."