More than 20 years ago, Tampa embraced a quixotic spirit and chose the slogan Tampa, America's Next Great City. Today it sounds hallucinogenic at best.
In this recession, in Tampa Bay's 11.7 percent unemployment rate, and in Florida's postbubble era of financial contrition, it's doubtful we'll be on a "next great" list for anything for a while.
We're not alone.
Other southeastern metro areas are taking painful stock in where they're going from here. Two of them — Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville —are peers and competitors, and may offer some economic lessons for Tampa Bay.
Charlotte transformed from a sleepy North Carolina town to become a banking behemoth, claiming bragging rights to the headquarters of both Bank of America and First Union (which later became Wachovia). Those banks powered into Florida, buying up market share while local bankers blinked their eyes. The two banks still dominate Florida.
But in Charlotte, both banks' powers are now waning. Bank of America is muddling through a series of embarrassing situations, and harshly criticized CEO Ken Lewis is retiring early. When weak Wachovia last year stumbled into the acquiring arms of California's Wells Fargo Bank, Charlotte lost one of its top bank headquarters.
In Charlotte's power structure, the two banks were once known as the "two rich uncles." Now Charlotte is struggling to figure out who will fill the leadership void.
In Jacksonville, decades of misguided downtown revival efforts produced a lot of finger-pointing but little lasting value. Jacksonville has been a repeat victim of fiscal blunders, bankruptcy-plagued private development efforts and a political structure that has forced the city's downtown to compete with suburban demands for public funding.
Former Jacksonville City Council member Matt Carlucci favored suburban funding until business executives asked "if they were moving to a city on the go or a city that's just drifting along aimlessly." That changed his mind. Now he backs a downtown core.
For Tampa Bay, there are lessons to be learned:
1. Tampa Bay has never enjoyed the simplistic luxury of Charlotte's "two rich uncles" boldly leading the economic development way. But Tampa Bay will never have to replace any dominating corporations because we don't have any of such magnitude here. That's also good news because economic development is a more democratic (if sometimes slower) process here, something Charlotte is belatedly embracing.
2. With Tampa Bay's more complicated tri-city structure of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, each of the three cities has labored with different success to make its downtown a compelling place to work and live. Still, Tampa Bay overall has a better track record than Jacksonville in making progress downtown.
3. Severe recessions test metro areas differently. They can weaken the role of long-standing businesses. They can undermine metrowide confidence when economic development efforts fail to deliver. And they can create economic standstills by sapping public funding resources.
For now, let's skip the daydream of being America's next great city and concentrate on becoming America's best comeback city.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]