Years ago on a glorious summer trip to the Badlands, as my family explored geological wonders amid ancient fossil beds, I, not surprisingly, found myself engrossed in a debate back home over a series of economic rankings that placed the Tampa Bay area in the middle to back of the pack. While walking miles over the fossils of ancient creatures that no longer exist, I literally burned through my iPad-1 as I urged leaders of the county’s economic development team and development organizations to come up with a new game plan to make our metro economically viable and geographically relevant before we too became extinct.

Time has passed, new leaders have ascended to positions of power, and change, albeit glacially slow to my likings, have begun to lift the Tampa Bay region to prominence.

Three examples:

EDI2: Hillsborough County’s Economic Development Innovation Initiative, or EDI2, daringly conceived at a Buddy Brew Coffee meet-up by the county’s deputy administrator for economic prosperity, Ron Barton, and Economic Development Director Lindsey Kimball, in collaboration with serial entrepreneur Joy Randels and @startupmonkey Ken Evans. EDI2 is a first-of-its-kind support structure created to lift our nascent tech startup community.

ECC: In 2014, the county moved its depressingly sclerotic business development center from an aging industrial park to hip Ybor City. It’s now the Entrepreneurial Collaborative Center, or ECC. The Tampa chapter of the Kaufman Foundations now meets every Wednesday morning at the ECC to a packed house where one to two startups present their companies to a widely diverse crowd of coffee and startup fanatics. Short presentations are followed by questions and suggestions for turning startups into thriving businesses.

Tampa Innovation Alliance: In 2015, Hillsborough County agreed to allocate $2 million for planning to build an Innovation District in the University Area anchored by the University of South Florida, Moffitt Cancer Center, Busch Gardens, Florida Hospital and the University Mall. The alliance’s purpose is to create a live-work-play-study-and-stay innovation district that creates high-wage jobs and generates a positive return on investment to taxpayers.

These are just three examples among a wave (see of programs created to connect (see ) our burgeoning startups to capital, mentors and a plethora of support elements critical for sustaining a startup community. It’s a start. Brad Feld, the globally renowned serial entrepreneur, wrote in his must-read magnum opus “Startup Communities” that it is a 20-year effort requiring 100 percent commitment, fealty to inclusiveness and openness to change.

But is it enough? The answer is a resounding no. True, Tampa recently ranked No. 2 in Forbes Magazine’s “Best Cities for Young Entrepreneurs” list, and Money Magazine called us as the No. 1 city in the Southeast — thank you, Jeff Vinik. So we are making progress, but it’s not close by a mile to where we must be if we want to consistently compete among the elite tech hubs for the best talent and job creators.

Forget about competing with San Francisco, Boston, Seattle or New York. I am talking about the Austins, Denvers, Provos and Salt Lakes, Raleighs and Charlottes of the world.

I am speaking of the best-performing cities where, as the Milken Institute reports, “America’s jobs are created and sustained.”

Why is this important? Because in a world where the gap between rich and poor is growing, so too is the distance between job centers — where creativity and innovation grow high-wage jobs — and economic wastelands. Our world is changing rapidly, as the Internet and cloud computing reshape every aspect of how we live.

The epicenter for this new tech-driven economy is Silicon Valley.

I traveled to Silicon Valley recently to attend the “2016 State of the Valley” conference and made it my mission to gain a deeper perspective on the most prolific economic region in the world.

The Valley is a job-generating machine, creating over 129,223 jobs just in the last year. Many, but not all, are high-wage jobs, with average annual incomes of over $122,000 and median household incomes of $95,000.

Not surprisingly the Valley lures the best and brightest from around the globe while others attempt to copy its success with their own variant of the name attached to their city or metro area. Cranes are everywhere, as the explosion in tech jobs has unleashed a boom of construction for retail, office space and new housing.

Silicon Valley is shaping the future, and it knows it.

What’s the secret? In part, it is a density of incredibly diverse, smart, relentless achievers determined to challenge the status quo and revel in disruption. We might use words like “innovation” and “disruption,” but they live it. It’s their ethos and the core of who they are as a people.

The conference itself was a clear-eyed examination of every jot and tittle of Silicon Valley’s economy. It also was also a clarion call to the well to over 1,500 attendees to keep a keen eye on the new next big thing and to avoid complacency. I was literally standing in the region recognized as having the most prolific economy in the world, and they were worried about losing a step while we debate whether to take one.

This is a place where coffee shops, like Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View, are filled with a diversity of humanity, speaking a multitude of languages, consummating deals in the time it takes to make a latte.

It also is a place where the CalTrain, a commuter rail line that runs the spine of Silicon Valley, is always full of 20- and 30-year-olds coding while commuting to work.

California certainly has its problems, but attracting other states’ best and brightest or drawing venture capital to create the next blockbuster company is not one of them.

Forget trying to become the next Silicon Valley. Many have tried, and none have succeeded. Instead, we must become relevant to the conversation.

Here is how:

Go All In: We must commit ourselves to being “all in” on building a regional economic powerhouse founded upon STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). It means investing in education and encouraging our kids to code.

Relentlessly Network: is actively networking with the Westshore Alliance, Downtown Partnership, Economic Development Corporation, Tampa Bay Technology Forum, Tampa Bay WaVE and emerging new entities like ThunderDome and SOFWERXs to build a vibrant metro area that creates high-wage jobs.

Help Each Other: This sounds simple and obvious, but sometimes what sounds easy is hard to do. Every economic development organization must encourage its established members to help a startup by buying their product or mentoring. We have cool new startups from and They are just the tip of the emerging startup community and need our help.

Embrace Innovation: Time to reject the status quo and jettison rules designed to stifle competition. It only holds us back while allowing others to surge forward to build their economy while we fall behind.

We have studied the problem, debated solutions and scored some success. I urge we do more.

Rather than being satisfied with nibbling at the edges of economic success, it’s time we take the full “byte” and engage so we can grow our economy, feed the next generation of workers, and escape becoming a future economic boneyard.

Mark Sharpe, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, is executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance.

Tampa Tribune, Sunday, February 28, 2016