Ron Rotella has a unique golf swing. More like a chop than a swing, but it works. He manages to hit the ball pretty consistently and even made a hole in one on a par three.
His unusual golf swing isn’t the only thing that sets him apart. This fall marks the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Westshore Alliance, and Ron has been its one and only executive director. Through the years Ron and the Westshore Alliance have left quite a mark on Tampa, helping to transform Westshore into the largest commercial business district in the state of Florida.
Ron is effective because he understands government as well as he understands business and recognizes that real progress occurs when the two are partners. It helped that he got his start in city government working on the model cities program of the 1960s. Nick Nuccio was Tampa’s mayor, and from that urban renewal project Ron stayed with the city for 17 years until he was asked to take the helm of the new Westshore Development Association in 1983 (later called the Westshore Alliance).
Back then only 25,000 people worked in the Westshore area, filling 4.2 million square feet of office space and 11 hotels. Today, there are 93,000 employees with 12.75 million square feet of office space and thirty-seven hotels. The number of passengers at Tampa International Airport has doubled, and the district is the home to the only two enclosed shopping malls in the city: Westshore Plaza and International Plaza.
In short, Westshore is a success story — a place where thousands live, work, vacation, shop and eat. Even during the great recession new restaurants opened, and are usually filled with diners.
In 1983 business leaders saw the potential for Westshore — and also the pitfalls of developing without a plan. They coalesced around the idea of an association that would help direct and promote future development with an emphasis on quality and partnerships. Al Austin, Frank Morsani, Dick Beard, Hugh Culverhouse, Michael Hogan, Elmer Krauss, Charles Gibson, Julian Lifsey and Jack Wilson gauged the interest of their business colleagues with an introductory dinner in September 1983. They expected 50 to attend, but 150 showed up. A spark was ignited, and the association came to be.
In 1984, through the help of then-state Sen. Betty Castor and state Rep. Jim Hargrett, legislation was passed that allowed a private entity such as the Westshore Alliance to create a development of regional impact (DRI).
At the risk of too much government-speak, a DRI is a huge undertaking and involves planning and financing for a development’s impact on all major infrastructure.
With this legislation, the Westshore area became the first in the state to have a private association create and utilize this important growth management tool to plan and guide development.
Earlier this month the Westshore Alliance hosted a luncheon to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Former Mayors Bob Martinez, Sandy Freedman, Dick Greco, myself, and current Mayor Bob Buckhorn were all on hand to laud the progress, and celebrate the quiet but persistent leader who always figured out a way to make things happen.
At the core of Ron’s success is his cultivation of relationships. His years in government gave him an appreciation for the work of public servants. He first got government to buy into an overall vision, and from that came a partnership that would last well beyond a ribbon cutting.
Ron has worked both inside and outside city hall with every mayor since Nick Nuccio — almost 50 years of real partnerships. Though each mayor had a different style and approach, he came to appreciate them for their sincere concern for the city.
Not only did he find common ground with Tampa’s mayors, but also with his own board of the Alliance. In 30 years they have never had a divisive vote or disagreement.
Even though the organization morphed from a group of 23 member companies that were private property owners and developers to a much more inclusive group of 360 businesses and interests, unity is apparent in their master planning and priorities.
Going forward, Ron sees a more pedestrian friendly Westshore area, with a circulator system of transit and walkable streets. Transportation has always been the biggest challenge and remains so for the coming decades.
As for Ron, he’s still at the helm after 30 years and plans to continue. There’s a new master plan to implement, more amenities to fund and build, more relationships to nurture.
Future progress for a man who long ago figured out how to get things done.
Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is a speaker and author. Her history column, Our Journey, runs biweekly in The Tampa Tribune. Contact her at [email protected]