The Tampa Bay region continues in trying to strengthen its relationship with Cuba. Right now, two top officials from the US Cuban Embassy out of Washington, D.C. are visiting St. Petersburg, as it vies to be home to a Cuban Consulate.
Since diplomatic relations between the two countries were cut in 1961, there hasn't been a Cuban consulate here in the US. While there's still some debate over whether all these changes are a good thing, many local leaders are convinced it's a matter of leading the way or losing out.
"We would be dumb not to take this once in a lifetime opportunity," said Bill Carlson, president of Tucker Hall, a Tampa Bay public relations firm.
Carlson's been traveling to Cuba and promoting business ventures between Tampa and the island nation for 17 years. He sees the opportunity to re-establish a Cuban consulate in Tampa Bay as incredibly valuable.
"Getting this consulate is probably the biggest economic development opportunity of our lifetimes, and that we may get in our lifetimes. We really need to all work together to make this happen," said Carlson.
That's why the city of St. Petersburg is making every effort to be chosen as the consulate's new home. This weekend, the St. Pete Downtown Partnership and USF's Patel College of Global Sustainability are hosting a Cuban delegation, showing off everything from local attractions to real estate options.
"St. Petersburg has a lot in common with Cuba: a real rich tradition in the arts, a real love of water. We've found both with folks we brought here in December and this group as well, they appreciate what a great place St. Petersburg is," said Joni James, CEO of the St. Pete Downtown Partnership.
The consulate would be the go-to place for issuing visas and helping with trade and other business opportunities between the two countries. And whatever city is selected, the surrounding region stands to benefit.
"All of that will help lift the economy and position us on an international scale and help us become a global region," James said.
While there are still plenty of people unsure if taking this next step in restoring US-Cuban relations is a good thing, Carlson thinks the benefits are too good to pass up.
"The policy that's been in place for 50 years hasn't worked, obviously. It has hurt the people of Tampa Bay. It's not helped the people of Cuba, and we do business with a lot of countries much worse in human rights than Cuba and are much more scary than Cuba. So why not open up trade with a partner that's been very friendly to us and that we have a historic relationship with," Carlson said.
Several other Florida cities, including Tampa and Miami Beach, are competing for the opportunity to have a Cuban consulate established in the state. Right now, there's no time frame on when an agreement could be reached to name the city where it will be located.