How Cross-Sector Partnerships Are Fueling Innovation in Tampa

Tampa, Florida

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Connecting state and local government leaders

“Not every city thinks this way. Not every city works this way.”

TAMPA — When a teacher plunked the wrong kid in his car at school pickup time a few years ago, Saravana Pat Bhava was infuriated. But the Tampa father’s anger quickly dissipated when he realized the teachers didn’t have the resources they needed to properly manage the process.

“The tools they were using were walkie-talkies, clipboards, sticky notes and [megaphones],” he told Route Fifty in an interview. So Bhava created his own solution—a GPS-enabled smartphone app called PikMyKid that notifies parents where their kids are, and allows teachers to pinpoint the location of parents’ vehicles.

Today, six schools in and around Tampa are using PikMyKid to manage the after-school dismissal process and reduce school traffic congestion. And the state recently awarded the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority a $115,000 grant to license the technology to 20 additional schools in the Tampa metro area—a move that will save each school an estimated $43,000 in labor transportation and traffic management costs.

The public-private partnership is just one example of why smart city proponents are gushing about Tampa.

The fast-growing city on Florida’s central Gulf coast is becoming a model for how collaboration between government and business and forward-thinking leadership can foster a growing digital economy, experts say.

“Not every city thinks this way. Not every city works this way,” Chelsea Collier told attendees of a roundtable discussion on Tampa’s smart city efforts at the University of Tampa last week.

Collier, an Austin, Texas, native, has been studying smart cities in the U.S., China and Germany and promoting conversations about those that are “getting it right” through her Digi.City Connects tour. In addition to Tampa, she’s convened conversations in Denver, Phoenix and San Diego.

Silos, she says, are the death knell of innovation. “Some cities say ‘We’re an entrepreneur kind of hub’ and it all stays locked away in tech, but when you have the spirit of entrepreneurship that exists in the university and city hall and downtown and on the retail side—in the bricks and mortar of what makes a city – that’s something pretty unique and pretty special.”

In Tampa, the most recent, visible example of that collaborative spirit is the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s deployment of four Tesla Model X vehicles for a ride-sharing project along a busy corridor near the University of South Florida, approximately 10 miles north of downtown.

Launched last week, the program is intended to tackle transit user’s “first-mile/last-mile” problem: that’s the challenge that commuters face in getting from their home to the bus stop, or, on the other end, from the bus stop to their office.

It’s no minor concern. With Tampa’s subtropical climate, where summertime temperatures are frequently in the high 90s and heavy rainfall with lightning can be an everyday occurrence, the first-mile/last-mile problem can pose an even bigger obstacle.

Now, Tampa residents who travel along a busy stretch of road near USF don’t have to walk their last mile to work. Instead, they can hail a $3 subsidized ride on an electric Tesla via HART’s HyperLINK app, which operates much like Uber and Lyft.

Cesar Hernandez, HART’s government relations director and the brainchild behind the pilot project, says the city will be able to bump the program up an innovative notch down the road. That’s because the Teslas are fully equipped with autonomous ride technology. When, and if, Florida decides to legalize driverless cars, HART will merely have to flip a switch to go autonomous.

So far, demand for the service, which is being funded via a public-private partnership, is high. “I was riding the service this morning. It was slammed,” Hernandez told Route Fifty last Thursday. Next, he says, HART will look into whether it can expand the service downtown.

In fact, because Tampa—like so much of Florida—has such a “barebones” transportation infrastructure that relies mostly on roads that are becoming way too congested, it’s an area ripe for innovation, Hernandez said. His agency is also working on an autonomous vehicle corridor for shuttle along a three-mile stretch of road in downtown Tampa—and he’s thinking ahead to more futuristic innovations.

In another decade, he envisions people in Tampa hopping into pods and traveling through frictionless, pneumatic tubes to other Florida cities at speeds of 750 mph. A trip from Tampa to Miami via Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop, which is still in the early concept stage and may or may not come to fruition, would take about 35 minutes, he said.

Or perhaps, the preferred method of travel will become self-flying air taxis that allow people to buzz around the city Jetson-style. Don’t believe it? Just Google Ehang 184 , Hernandez said. “There’s a lot of stuff happening and a lot of technology that is being produced and actually completed—and I’m not sure the public is well aware of how far along we are.”

Indeed, until recently, Tampa itself has seemed like one of Florida’s best-kept secrets—often overlooked by outsiders and outshined by other Florida destinations.

While Miami basks in its reputation as an international playground for the hip, and Orlando is home to the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Tampa’s main claim to fame has been cigars, strip clubs and retirees—though it’s not a reputation that’s entirely fair. ( The Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact disproved the rumor of Tampa being the world’s strip club capital four years ago).

But times are a changin’ in Tampa. Of the 1,000 people who move to Florida every day, 200 choose Tampa as their new home—and they’re not all AARP members. What’s drawing them to Florida’s third largest city? Along with the great weather and beaches—yes, that’s still a big draw—millennials are attracted to the region’s affordable housing and vibrant job market.

While Tampa Bay might not have a big name high-tech employer like Google or Facebook, the region boasts a bustling business to business (B2B) market that is acting like a rising tide for the local economy. It’s also developing a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem with technology incubators that foster promising startups like Bhava’s PikMyKid.

Innovative housing options—one developer plans to convert eight floors of a 12-story building in downtown Tampa into 120 micro-apartments that will rent for $850 a month—and a plethora of cheap, co-working spaces are also expanding opportunities for the city.

In New York and Silicon Valley, businesses can expect to spend 40 percent to 70 percent of their overhead on office rent, points out Ned Pope, a senior project manager at Nielsen and a speaker at the recent Digi.City event. “If you can come to a place like Tampa, and space is 10 percent of your overhead, that’s a lot of talent infrastructure you can infuse that you’re not spending on brick-and-mortar facilities. That’s very appealing.”

Tampa’s smart city fever is even spreading to the exburbs. North of Tampa, in neighboring Pasco County, developers have broken ground on the state’s first “connected city.” The aim is to turn the sleepy bedroom community into a thriving 7,000-acre mecca for high-tech jobs by wiring it with high-speed internet and providing alternative transportation options. The tech district will also feature a 15-million gallon, eco-friendly manmade Crystal Lagoon, like the ones that have made a big splash in Dubai and Egypt.

The most talked-about project in region, though, is the $3 billion redevelopment of the city’s Channelside district , an underutilized section of downtown Tampa currently dominated by Amalie Arena, home to the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.

Spearheaded by Tampa Bay Lightning Owner Jeff Vinik and funded through a partnership with Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, LLC, the project aims to transform 53 acres of land along the Hillsborough River into an urban waterfront district where people will live, work and play.

Among the more intriguing smart features of the project is the community’s designation as the world’s first “WELL Certified” city district, which will aim to keep the population healthier and happier by incorporating everything from circadian rhythm lighting to air pollution meters.

No one, it seems, is more aware of the opportunity presented by all this than Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

“I look back six to seven years ago, when we were trapped in the midst of the worst recession since the great depression, and people basically counted out the state of Florida and certainly counted out the city of Tampa,” Buckhorn told attendees of last week’s Digi.City conference.

Today, he says, the region is among the top for corporate relocations and attracting and keeping young talent that used to flee to cities like Charlotte, Austin and Raleigh-Durham.

“For me, as mayor, recruiting intellectual capital to Tampa is the most important thing I can do. If talent is here, jobs will come,” Buckhorn said. Moreover, Tampa’s smart city push is a key part of keeping the talent pipeline primed, he says. “At the end of the day, if we don’t become early adapters, we will die. We will be like the dinosaurs.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct the number of schools using PikMyKid. It is six schools, not 66.

Amy Keller is a journalist based in Orlando.

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