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Trigaux: At last, Tampa Bay embraces one set of indicators to gauge its future course

By Robert Trigaux
The Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional economic development group, worked for more than a year with about 90 area organizations to hammer out a broad set of "regional competitiveness indicators" to help track over time the strengths and weaknesses of this region compared to 19 other U.S. metro areas. Shown in photo, Lee Evans, executive director and Tampa head of the North America Capability Center for Bristol-Myers Squibb, speaks during a recent Tampa Bay Partnership gathering of business, philanthropic, university, pro sports franchises and major hospital group leaders to discuss how best to use the soon-to-be-released Regional Competitiveness Report. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

It’s not your typical event when close to 90 top organizations — from businesses, philanthropic groups, chambers of commerce and hospitals to universities, public schools, major sports franchises and local governments — meet around one table and over the course of a year agree on a single mission:

If a broad spectrum of Tampa Bay leaders can agree on a common set of regional data that objectively measures over time how this metropolitan area is doing in comparison to other key U.S. metros, then our weaknesses can be better identified and improved, our strengths bolstered and celebrated, and this region can emerge a more competitive and prosperous place.

Sounds simple enough. Believe me, it isn’t. Yet the first steps have been taken to make it happen in Tampa Bay.

In what may be an unprecedented example here of regional collaboration and buy-in, the greater Tampa Bay community will soon unveil an in-depth, objective set of data tracking this metro area’s performance across six sweeping categories.

It’s called the "Regional Competitiveness Report" and will monitor Tampa Bay’s progress — or lack thereof — across more than 50 measurements in categories ranging from job vitality, innovation and infrastructure to talent, civic quality and outcomes (including poverty, unemployment and migration to this area).

And — this part is important — the report will compare on an ongoing basis how well Tampa Bay is competing in each of these measures against 19 other metros across Florida and the country. Some of those metros are "peer" places like Orlando or Charlotte, meaning they are of similar size and clout as Tampa Bay. Others among the 19 metros are "aspirational" — places like Austin, Atlanta, Dallas-Fort-Worth or even Seattle that a growing Tampa Bay might want to resemble in some positive fashion in the future.

Armed with such insights, relevant Tampa Bay leaders from business, government, education and non-profit sectors can then decide what most needs fixing, and who among those nearly 90 participating groups has the drive and resources to make it happen.

There’s serious potential here. But can it be realized? Assessing Tampa Bay’s best and worst attributes — while comparing them to 19 other places in the country — takes time. And it takes courage — often in the face of blind boosterism — to admit we need some help.

RELATED COVERAGE: Trigaux: Can Florida go from good to great? Look beyond economy, says U.S. News’ review of states.

Upcoming efforts will focus on improving our weakest links. Talent, for example, is identified in the regional report as lagging behind many competing metro areas.

"All of this starts with the premise to manage by fact, not conjecture," says Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes, a respected veteran of economic development efforts who was asked to chair the Tampa Bay Partnership’s 29-member regional indicators task force. "Otherwise, we are relegated to who has the loudest voice in the room or who has the biggest pull in the community."

The first "Regional Competitiveness Report" will be unveiled later this month and soon become available online. But the beauty and formidable potential of this set of detailed indicators is how they will track in the coming years. The first report is just a current snapshot. Ongoing reports will clarify this region’s performance, whether good or bad or simply middle of the pack.

"I am a data freak," Lee Evans, a 2014 transplant here to head Bristol-Myers Squibb’s new North America Capability Center, admits to fellow bay area executives at one recent indicators meeting. "I could not be any happier," he says of the new regional competitiveness indicators.

"It is about honesty. It is about knowing where you stand."

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Officially, the regional indicators task force first kicked into gear last fall. But its real origins began earlier.

Nearly a dozen years ago and under different leadership, the Tampa Bay Partnership launched a regional economic scorecard. It annually ranked, 1 through 6, Tampa Bay against Jacksonville, Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, N.C., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. The scorecard was based on employment and workforce, income and productivity, housing, innovation and education.

The findings enjoyed some early buzz from the community. But as Tampa Bay drifted lower in the rankings over several years, the scorecard lost favor and was dropped.

PAST COVERAGE: Tampa ranks last in economic study.

But other metros did not give up on harnessing data to help them understand how they were performing versus competing areas.

Last year, the Tampa Bay Partnership decided to catch up. It started looking in depth at what other metro areas have already done to measure their own regional performance. Partnership CEO Rick Homans drew ideas, best practices and inspirations from many cities — Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Charlotte, among them — already adopting their versions of regional economic indicators. Homans liked what he saw used by Columbus, Ohio, but also in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

It was there, in the Twin Cities, where Homans was introduced to the Itasca Project. More than a decade-old, it’s a private civic initiative by 60-plus local leaders to further growth and development of a Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area where unemployment is currently under 3 percent. It’s very selective in the challenges it takes on to better insure it accomplishes what it sets out to do. Itasca’s also keen on trying to make all of its metro area thrive, poor and wealthy alike, and makes a priority of seeking out best practices.

These are, basically, the same goals Tampa Bay’s competitiveness report hope to achieve.

"Every metro area has its pluses and minuses," Homans says. "No metro light up all the way across the board."

But some clearly are ahead of the pack.

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It should be noted that this Tampa Bay Partnership project is not funded by rich corporations or jobs-driven economic development groups. The two organizations funding this effort are the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and United Way Suncoast — two of the key non-profit philanthropic groups that help channel charitable giving to the needy in this market.

Why them? Because they view the long-term prosperity of the Tampa Bay area will not be measured only by the success of the well educated and the wealthy but by the success of everybody. And if everyone here is looking at the same set of community and economic indicators, then there’s less confusion and more clarity over where needs are greatest.

RELATED COVERAGE: United Way: 44 percent of Florida households, mostly working poor, struggle to meet basic needs.

"Over time, what these indicators can do is unite us in our understanding of where we are and where we need to go," says CEO Marlene Spalten of the $224-million-asset Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. "If we are using different references, then we are not working together."

United Way Suncoast put up $20,000 and staff time to support the Regional Competitiveness Report, says CEO Suzanne McCormick. "We agreed to be a partner in this project because we believe having a common set of key community data can help us develop smarter, collaborative strategies with our donors, our partners and other funders," she says.

"If we all know what we are working towards, and we have the ability to track our progress — we will truly know if we are making a difference."

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com Follow @venturetampabay.