JAN 21, 2015

The 15,000 acre area surrounding the University of South Florida‘s Tampa campus has been called “the University Area”, “University West,” and, derisively, “Suitcase City,” due to the number of transients.

But no matter what you call the region, which is bounded by Interstate 275 to the west, I-75 to the East, Busch Boulevard to the south and Bearss Avenue to the north, it’s home to thousands of residents, hundreds of businesses, and a few dozen of Tampa’s most recognizable organizations and sites.

To the members of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, however, it’s is an untapped gold mine of potential.

“The purpose (of the Alliance) is to make this location recognized around the world as the destination for innovation, creative activity, business enterprise,” said Alliance Executive Director Mark Sharpe. “It’s to make this place a place you want to live, work and play.”

Tampa Innovation Alliance Executive Director Mark Sharpe

The Tampa Innovation Alliance was formed by anchor members USF,Moffitt Cancer Center, Busch Gardensand Florida Hospital Tampa in 2011. But the group only really stepped up its activities since bringing Sharpe on board last summer after his tenure on the Hillsborough County Commission ended due to term limits.

“So much of what we’re going to be doing requires an understanding of how government works, and so my job is to kind of be the conduit between the business community and our local government, and that’ll be very helpful,” Sharpe said. “And I also think that as a commissioner I learned that you have to be relentless if you want to get anything done, and I hope that relentlessness that I had there, I’ll bring here.”

Over 100 people attended the Alliance’s recent kick-off luncheon near the Alliance’s new home in USF’s University Technology Center. Representatives of businesses both large and small were there, as were developers and government officials from Hillsborough County, Tampa and Temple Terrace.

USF System President Judy Genshaft addresses the kick-off luncheon for the Tampa Innovation Alliance. USF is one of the ‘anchor’ members for the Alliance.

“There are so many people that are interested in our ‘neighborhood’ and it means so much to us,” USF System President Judy Genshaft said. “We have so many people and workforce skills here. We need to come together, work together, and make a big difference in this area.”

That means leveraging what members bring to the Alliance, starting with the anchors like USF.

“Our people are all over—it is our responsibility as a state university, a public university, to be an economic engine for the region,” Genshaft added.

Two other anchor members, Florida Hospital Tampa and Moffitt Cancer Center, boast world-class experts in treatment and research, as well as thousands of patients and family members who come from around the country. One hospital official believes both employees and the visitors deserve better surroundings.

“We really see the opportunity to improve the location that they’re in here, the opportunity to provide them better housing, not just for our patients, but for our overall community, our work community here, better restaurants, better other facilities that would be conducive to continuing to develop this area,” Moffitt’s chief operating officer Jack Kolosky said.

Finally, there’s the fourth member – Busch Gardens.

“We cover the entire spectrum of things to do here in North Tampa, and entertainment is a vital part of everyone’s life,” Busch Gardens President and Alliance chair Jim Dean said. “Obviously healthcare is important as well as education, and we think it’s quite a great blend of things to do here in North Tampa, along with the residential community and the other commercial operations; this is an exciting day for us as we start building a vision together.”

Sharpe would like to see a community that doesn’t just draw people in to use these anchor institutions and other organizations and businesses, but one that keeps people here after they’ve gone to school, or seen the doctor or visited Busch Gardens.

“What we’re going to be building is that connective tissue so that now there are things to do, so that when you’re done, you don’t get back in your car and you leave, you want to stay here – this is a place where you want to remain,” Sharpe said.

And when asked about Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s similar redevelopment plan for the Channelside region in downtown Tampa, Sharpe indicated that it’s not a competition.

“The distance between downtown Channelside and the University, which is about 11 miles, is negligible, because it’s just one spot, so we complement each other, we work each other for the betterment of this region,” he said.

With the Alliance just getting underway, Sharpe plans to hold weekly meetings with current and potential members. For more information, including Alliance membership registration, visit TampaInnovation.com.