Friday, December 15, 2017
Business

Competing metros: Tampa Bay rebounds to best performance in decade in Milken Institute rankings

Here's a feel-good column to unwrap this holiday season that will reveal the Tampa Bay metro area is rebounding as one of the better performing, larger metro areas in the United States.

That's great news after a decade of rough times in the bay area economy, hitting a low ranking among the nation's top 200 metros at No. 169 in 2009. That's when the recession cut deepest in Tampa Bay and Florida, and the housing market bust was most intense.

So here's the best gift, courtesy of the Milken Institute's just released 2016 annual survey of the best performers among the country's 200 largest metro areas.

Tampa Bay ranks No. 33, up 25 spots from No. 58 in 2015 and up a whopping 136 metro spots from seven years ago when this market pretty much hit bottom at No. 169.

That bears repeating. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area leapfrogged 25 (from 58 to 33) metro areas in one year and 136 of the nation's 200 top metro areas since a low in 2009.

Looks like all the talk of "swagger" by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn isn't just political hype after all.

Why do we care if we are 33rd this year? Because the trajectory has been up seven years straight. These are not static changes. Every one of those 200 metro areas is striving to do better, to out-compete its peers.

Rising so quickly as Tampa Bay has is testament to the improved Florida economy but also points to the local efforts at economic gains achieved over time.

Tampa Bay's ranking this year is the highest it has been since 2005, when this metro market ranked 25th by Milken in that year's metro survey.

That's an impressive comeback, one that underpins the growing confidence in this metro area's broader business community. Unemployment is down. Tourism remains strong. A construction boom is under way from the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa to southern Hillsborough north to Wesley Chapel.

And new companies with major league names like Johnson & Johnson and Citigroup are expanding here while up-and-coming area firms from CareSync and BlueGrace Logistics are winning strong investment backing and aggressively adding jobs.

And on Jan. 9, this market gets to kick off the new year by basking in the public spotlight as host of the third annual College Football Playoff National Championship at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

But enough with the self-congratulatory back slapping. There's more to learn from the Milken Institute survey, which has been analyzing metro performances since 1999.

The survey's "Best-Performing Cities: Where America's Jobs Are Created and Sustained" index uses a comprehensive set of data to rank both 200 large and 201 smaller metros across the United States. Measures like growth in employment, wages and technology output are heavily weighted. Milken chooses not to include cost-of-living and quality-of-life conditions (which arguably would only improve Tampa Bay's status).

Here are a few key takeaways from the overall survey.

•At No. 1, San Jose/Silicon Valley repeated as the top metro area among 200 large metros, both as the nation's innovation capital but also for its top rating for wage growth.

•Top metro performers were strikingly stable compared with 2015. The top six large metros in the 2016 rankings were the same as last year, though there were a few ranking shifts among those six. In all, 19 of last year's top 25 metros made the cut in 2016.

•Milken researchers said the top-performing metros have "cohesive strategies" that distinguish them from others and offer lessons that may be adaptable for other localities. Here's one lesson for Tampa Bay: All the top ranked metro areas have major tech sector clusters and high rates of entrepreneurship. This market is working to raise its tech sector, and the still-young startup community here is gaining ground. Consider this a strong reminder to keep the focus, energy and resources on these core Tampa Bay sectors.

•While Tampa Bay's comeback in the rankings is impressive, another Central Florida metro also deserves attention. The Orlando metro area ranked 9th in the nationwide large metro rankings, soaring from 28th last year and making it the only Florida metro area to crack the top 10 in 2016. The principal driver: job growth. The smaller Orlando metro market routinely outpaced job expansions reported in larger metro markets of Florida.

Let me suggest another factor in Orlando's success not captured in the Milken survey. That metro area's economic development organizations are regionally streamlined to speak with one voice. They are also efficient and communicate to each other so they rarely duplicate efforts or compete against one another. Tampa Bay, by contrast, still struggles to operate as a single market, though there are signs of improving cooperation.

•While Orlando, Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale and Fort Myers metro areas saw strong gains in their Milken rankings, Florida cities like Tallahassee, Pensacola, Ocala and Lakeland saw their rankings drop.

•In the related Milken rankings of 201 smaller metro areas across the United States, the Villages ranked tops in Florida at 13th, though it fell from 6th in the 2015 survey. Bringing up the rear: In Citrus County, the Homosassa Springs metro area ranked 170th, improving from 187th last year. The area's economy, which encompasses Crystal River, was hurt by the premature closing of the Duke Energy nuclear power plant there. A replacement natural gas plant now in the works should help a slow rebound.

A final footnote: Among the top 10 large metros ranked by Milken are two Southeast markets (other than Orlando at No. 9). Raleigh, N.C., a perennial hot spot for higher wage jobs and a better educated workforce, ranked 6th this year, as it did in 2015. The other metro on the upswing is Nashville, which landed at 7th from 18th in 2015.

St. Petersburg economic leaders toured Raleigh earlier this fall to learn some of its best practices. Tampa business leaders took a benchmarking trip to Nashville in 2013.

These kinds of trips can only contribute to a better performing Tampa Bay market.

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

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