Mark Sharpe brings his laptop on date nights with his wife, Stephanie, and so does she. He once ducked behind a tree to return texts while on a family hike in Georgia, and she threatened to throw his BlackBerry in the lake. Sharpe pissed off Republican kingmaker Ralph Hughes in his first couple of months on the Hillsborough County Commission, but still served for 10 years until getting termed out in November.
During his tenure on the Commission, Sharpe evolved from an establishment Republican to a mass transit champion to a guy who regularly mingles on Friday mornings with the rambunctious entrepreneur crowd at Buddy Brew in Tampa. He is an idea man but not an ideologue.
And he is, without question, a high- motor guy.
“I remember when I was 13 I started worrying that I was wasting time,” he says.
It’s for these and other reasons that Mark Sharpe is widely regarded as the ideal person to lead the Tampa Innovation Alliance, a public/private economic development agency tasked with lifting the long-sagging fortunes of theUniversity of South Florida area.
Others might see it as a daunting task, but Sharpe doesn’t do daunt.
“I’m having a blast,” he says, just a few weeks on the job. People who know him well do not expect that attitude to change as the months wear on and the honeymoon ends.
Sharpe inherits a 15,000-acre district — part city of Tampa, part county, part Temple Terrace — that’s beset by pockets of poverty, a transient population (a large chunk of it has long been known as “Suitcase City”) and a higher-than-average crime rate. Its schizophrenic business corridors include Tampa Bay’s biggest tourist attraction, most prominent university and prestigious health and research institutions, interspersed with dingy strip malls, corroding auto body shops, ramshackle motels, storefront churches and other totems of urban malaise.
The Tampa Innovation Alliance — an economic development coalition formed in 2011 by USF, Busch Gardens, Moffitt Cancer Center and Florida Hospital Tampa — is paying Sharpe a low six-figure salary, sans benefits like health care, to stand the organization up and inject energy and direction.
Clad in his usual starched white shirt, tie and khakis, Sharpe has been darting all over town in his Volkswagen Jetta, cell phone pasted to his ear, taking meetings, attending events, engaging people.
Kolosky allows that, despite some fanfare at its inception, the group thus far has not accomplished much, but maintains that the four charter members are committed — they’ve just been lacking leadership. However, Sharpe’s two-year employment agreement calls for the Innovation Alliance “to become a self-sustaining organization,” Kolosky says, “not just dependent on the four of us. He needs to find other sources of revenue and find a wider range of stakeholders.”
To that end, one of Sharpe’s first-year goals is to recruit 40 new paying members to the Alliance. He’s seeking sponsors in order to make a splash with a rollout meeting on Jan. 9. In the longer view, Sharpe aims to foster collaboration and dialogue between the big players and the smaller business community; to promote the area as a hub of medical tourism; to create some aesthetic coherence in the thoroughfares; to give the zone a brand identity and send “Suitcase City” packing.
Perhaps most important, Sharpe wants to spur interest from private developers.
“Ultimately,” he says, “it’s the private sector that will determine this area’s fate.”
Sharpe always hated raising campaign dollars during his political career, but finds asking for money in this job agreeable enough.
“It doesn’t come with the same kind of baggage and ramifications,” he says. “I just won’t use the former-commissioner card. No one has said no yet, but I want them to understand they can.”
The ex-commish is not just romancing the bigwigs. He’s made allies of the managers at Dunkin’ Donuts on Fowler, where the noted coffee fiend routinely stops for 16-ouncers. He patiently explained his mission to two rather perplexed security guards in the parking lot of University Mall.
“They’re stakeholders, too,” he said on a recent afternoon, as dark rainclouds loomed above.
Man in need of a mission
After 10 high-profile years on the County Commission, Sharpe could have probably landed a plum, high-paying job in the private sector. His name was tied at times to the leadership post of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which was vacated when CEO Stu Rogel stepped down in December. Others say he could walk into a lucrative gig as a transportation lobbyist. Sharpe pointedly maintains that at the moment he is interested in neither.
While his Alliance salary is no paltry sum, Sharpe understands that being the first director of a startup organization does not provide long-term security for his family. But as his career in government drew to a close, he never sought a soft landing. “Mark doesn’t do cushy,” Stephanie Sharpe says. “Would it be nice if he had a solid, high-paying job? Ultimately not, because I doubt he’d be happy. He needs a mission.”
If colleagues and friends have any worries about Sharpe in his new role, it’s due to his penchant for lofty thinking and tendency to bounce from task to idea to goal, to get diverted, to connect everything to the big picture.
His new job is apt to require more patience than he’s accustomed to.
“He’s a dreamer anchored in reality,” Merrill says. “And he’ll expect and ask for things that seem impossible.”
Probably no one knows the USF area better than Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who has championed the district for decades.
“I’ve know Mark for nearly 25 years, and he’s an honorable man with a big heart who wants to do it all and get it all done,” Crist says. “But in this particular case, in order to make a difference he’s going to have to focus and pick his fights. Strategically, he’s got to notch some short-term victories and set the stage for long-term victories to get the momentum going and move forward.”