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Trigaux: Halfway through 2017, a closer look at six drivers of the Tampa Bay economy

By Robert Trigaux
Is there one theme or idea that captures the Tampa Bay brand? Not really but here's one possibility. The fun-loving annual Gasparilla "Invasion" of Tampa is captured in this photo of The Jose Gasparilla loaded with pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla on its way this past January to the Tampa Convention Center. In the future a vibrant downtown Tampa or St. Petersburg may be the better theme. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

We're nearly halfway through 2017 already, a perfect time to step back from the daily grind of business and ask: How's Tampa Bay's economy doing?

At first glance, the answer should be: Splendid. The metro-wide unemployment rate is down to a remarkable 3.8 percent. People are relocating to Tampa Bay and Florida in general at a rapid clip. And just last month we learned Tampa Bay will host the 2021 Super Bowl, its fifth.

Few metro areas in the nation would turn down stats and opportunities like Tampa Bay is blessed with of late.

But let's pause long enough to peel a few more layers off this regional economy. Look closer at what's happening here, what's trying to get done and what's not getting done — at least not yet.

There will always be bumps in the road. So let's check in on six key business efforts under way that, with luck and resources, will help further elevate the Tampa Bay economy. We also gauge each effort's momentum: Up, down or sideways.

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1. Selling the Tampa Bay brand:

The good news is that I hear this annoying question — "So where is Tampa Bay in Florida?" — far less often than I did in the 1990s. The bad news is a business brand for "Tampa Bay" remains elusive, especially when compared to faster-rising Orlando or the bigger-richer-louder mystique of Miami.

In truth, there may not be a specific brand that captures Tampa Bay's quality in a simple slogan. That does not mean this area should ignore the importance of marketing the area aggressively to big businesses considering expansion, entrepreneurs seeking a less costly but strong startup community, tourists seeking a lower key beach/culture/sports experience, and millennial talent pondering where best to establish a career and an appealing lifestyle.

2. Recruiting better jobs:

Not long ago, Tampa and Hillsborough County basked in some major business expansions from big name companies. Bristol-Myers Squibb set up a major facility here, soon followed by Johnson & Johnson and then Amgen this past March— raising the potential of this metro area carving out a new and powerful niche as a "shared services" facility mecca for major pharmaceutical firms. Now it's unclear if that momentum will fade.

Enterprise Florida, the state's job recruiting agency, was demonized by state legislators who, during the latest session, slashed its budget. Enterprise Florida lost the bulk of its money for job incentives. As chief business cheerleader, Gov. Rick Scott must reinvent his marketing message to out-of-state businesses — as he started to do this past week on a trip to tax-heavy Connecticut to lure businesses to move south. Rather than tout Enterprise Florida incentives, Scott now must pitch the possibilities in a new $85 million pot of money for job-creating road and infrastructure projects.

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Sure, Florida added 29,000 jobs in May — more than any other state. But the Sunshine State clearly must re-establish its recruiting credibility. How quickly will it recover?

3. Upgrading transportation:

Efforts to establish a comprehensive mass transit plan — it hurts to note how far behind Tampa Bay remains — have struggled mightily for many years with little to show for it. "We are glaringly out of step with other great markets across the nation that have developed regional structures to operate regional transit," Tampa Bay Partnership chief Rick Homans argued this past week. The latest breakthrough — hopefully it is not premature to call it that — is the newly minted state law that will reinvent the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) as a new platform for establishing regional transit here. This is a big first step in a stairway ahead that is a very long.

Consider the broader transportation gains in Tampa Bay. Tampa International Airport is in the midst of a mammoth upgrade and expansion, one sure to maintain the airport among the nation's best. And though it is early to know its fate, the recent experiment to use a ferry to taxi folks across Tampa Bay between the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa is another opportunity to give people commuting options beyond gridlock on I-275 and other overtaxed roads.

4. Supporting regional startups:

It's one of Tampa Bay's brightest economic spots, even if the startup community here is still in its infancy and won't be confused with Silicon Valley in my lifetime — or yours. There's some serious energy brewing behind the region's "entrepreneurial ecosystem" in the greater bay area with universities, incubators, accelerators, serial entrepreneurs and, yes, even an emerging core of venture capitalists and independent investors based here starting to come together and at least talk to each other. Dreamit Ventures is launching an accelerator in Tampa in "urban tech" tied to Jeff Vinik's real estate project.

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Tampa Bay WaVE's soon-to-debut seed fund will encourage more capital. TEC Garage in St. Petersburg? The Iron Yard producing more folks with coding skills? A just-announced Minority Business Accelerator from the Tampa chamber? They all play important roles. But it is the Tampa Bay entrepreneurs who must lead with strong startup ideas and insane work ethics. Let's keep them inspired.

5. Building a strong housing market:

Everyone here should never forget the burst housing bubble that devastated Tampa Bay and Florida a decade ago. It's a painful reminder that a healthy housing market is a cornerstone of a strong regional economy. For now, that housing market is doing well, with home prices soaring in value as more people move to Tampa Bay and the inventory of housing for sale remains extremely tight. This is all to the good — unless you are struggling to find an affordable house to buy or a reasonable apartment that does not absorb 30-40 percent of your paycheck. Clearly, home builders need to step up and construct more homes more quickly, and include more starter homes at prices younger people may be able to afford. Is this a perfect housing market? There is no such thing. But we are all thankful the plummeting prices of the past are over, hopefully for a long time.

6. Reviving downtown economies:

Tampa Bay's tri-city structure of Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater is a blessing and a curse. Most metro regions revolve around one major city and one urban city center. Tampa Bay's got three to nurture. Tampa's looking a lot more promising than just a few years ago thanks to smart urban development like Tampa's Riverwalk, Ulele, The Heights and — of course — the Jeff Vinik-Cascade Investment $3 billion redevelopment project that's bringing the likes of USF's medical school and a recapitalized MOSI to the downtown scene.

St. Petersburg's downtown still bears the Good Housekeeping seal of what every area downtown wants to be — awash with residents, grocery stores, culture, a vigorous night life, a soon-to-open Hyatt and a promised new Pier in the making. Even Clearwater's downtown is on track with a fancy new park. As for its ongoing tug of war with the Church of Scientology, there are at least talks to trying to reinvigorate a retail and business community in the downtown core. That's a long-term struggle of governance, money and willpower, which means Clearwater likely will remain a controversial economic question mark for the region for years to come.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.