A paycheck laggard lurks among the three counties that make up most of Tampa Bay's economic might.
Ten years ago, average Pasco wages trailed adjacent Hillsborough County by 18 percent — $598 versus $731 a week. Now it's worse. The wage gap has widened to a whopping 29 percent.
A similar divide separates Pasco and Pinellas. And compared with the nation's weekly average wage of $1,000, Pasco now trails by 32 percent. In 2003, the difference was just 22 percent.
Wrong way, Pasco.
It's an understatement to say the county is chafing to become a bigger economic player in the area. But Pasco's weakening wage status is proving a drag on the larger Tampa Bay metrowide pay scale, which now averages about $812 a week.
Pasco's pay gap underscores the difficulty suburban and rural counties face in trying to keep up with more established counties like Hillsborough and Pinellas. Both enjoy deeper, diversified business benches and major urban cores.
Not to pick on Pasco. Other counties clustered around Tampa Bay, from Polk in the east, Hernando and Citrus to the north and Manatee to the south, are similarly fighting to keep up in the wage race.
But Pasco specifically is part of the three-legged stool that makes up the core of the Tampa Bay region. It's most geographically and economically connected to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. And it's big enough so that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks its average weekly wages. (Hernando, for example, did not make the BLS cut.)
"We are impatient and we are aggressive as a county," says Pasco Economic Development Council CEO John Hagen, who is well aware of the county's thinner paychecks. "We want to accelerate the good things that can make Pasco a full service economy with better-paying jobs and not just wait for things to happen as a bedroom community."
In February, economic researcher William Fruth of POLICOM Corp. warned Pasco business leaders that the county has to find better-paying jobs rather than just more low-wage employment if it wants to make any pay headway.
Pasco faces some big hurdles. State-level efforts using incentives to recruit jobs to the county have proved puny at best. A recent report looking at Enterprise Florida's recruiting success by county between 1996 and 2012 shows Pasco winning a paltry 79 jobs. Compare that with Hillsborough's 13,867 and Pinellas' 5,525 job gains in the same period.
Pasco is also in transition. It lacks an urban capital. Still dominated by private ranch lands, it's only recently gained some momentum in developing retail, commercial and housing projects. And those are mostly concentrated near its southern border or along U.S. 19.
Two large financial companies — St. Petersburg's Raymond James Financial and Baltimore's T. Rowe Price — secured Pasco property along state roads 54 and 56 several years ago to supplement their operations in Pinellas and Hillsborough. The recession stalled both projects.
Pasco is also trying to keep pace with the emerging startup culture taking hold in Hillsborough and Pinellas. The county recently unveiled plans to launch its own business incubator to help support entrepreneurs and generate future jobs.
To be clear, Pasco's weak wages reflect the pay only of those jobs in the county. They don't include the many residents in the southern bedroom communities of Pasco County who typically earn more by commuting to jobs in Pinellas or Hillsborough.
Head north, away from most of Pasco's economic energy, and much of the county grows quiet and rural. Part of that is on purpose.
Pasco leaders remain confident that Pasco's abundant land and relative proximity to this region's main airport and larger cities eventually will work in its economic favor.
But when? It's not as if Hillsborough or Pinellas achieved great wage leaps. But their progress is at least steady and in the right direction.
Hillsborough's average weekly wage is up 30 percent in the last decade. Pay in Pinellas is up 34 percent over that same period and may slowly be closing the gap between the two counties.
Both counties still trail the $1,000 national average. But while Pasco wage growth has fallen further behind the U.S. average, Pinellas and Hillsborough are holding their own.
Hillsborough wages today trail the U.S. average by 5 percent, just as they did a decade ago. In Pinellas, pay in 2003 was 13 percent behind the national average. That gap has since closed to 10 percent.
It's great to have big aspirations. But for all Pasco's passion to succeed, it's still falling woefully behind in the pay race. The county must find a better way if it wants to claim its piece of Tampa Bay's three-legged economic stool.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]