Friday, February 23, 2018

Flatlining Pinellas badly in need of economic CPR

In the tri-county core of Tampa Bay, the populations of Hillsborough and Pasco are expected to grow steadily for decades to come.

But Pinellas County looks destined to flatline.

Forecasts for the year 2040 show the number of people living in what already is Florida's highest-density county will be 926,000 — about the same as today.

Pinellas' lack of space to grow — and its inability to attract new businesses as cheaply as Hillsborough and Pasco — should be sounding alarm bells.

Clearly, Pinellas needs economic CPR. Without a major jolt, Pinellas runs the risk of becoming a stagnant economy as the majority of future business expansion heads elsewhere.

Especially when the population of Hillsborough, which trailed Pinellas until 1994, is on track to nearly double its neighboring county by 2040. Even Pasco, once a distant third in people, will close in on Pinellas' static population over the next few decades.

Pinellas could grow its economy, even if its population plateaus. But that would require a much more aggressive strategy by the county to pursue higher-wage, higher-skill jobs instead of relying so heavily on the success of its low-wage tourism industry. It would also require the county to become more forceful in clearing run-down, unused property so new businesses could more easily enter the county.

History suggests that's not going to happen in Pinellas.

Key Pinellas leaders, from County Commissioner Ken Welch to county director of economic development Mike Meidel, acknowledge the dilemma.

"We are an urban area," Meidel says of the county's challenges. "There are no easy fits anymore."

Longtime regional business leader Tom James agrees.

"The disadvantage in Pinellas is that we must now focus on redevelopment," which is expensive, says the chairman of Raymond James Financial, headquartered in the Carillon area of St. Petersburg.

If you live and work in Hillsborough and Pasco, why care about Pinellas? In private moments, your county leaders may even gloat a bit in anticipation of outgrowing Pinellas. But the same leaders worry that the three-legged county stool that forms the heart of the Tampa Bay economy cannot succeed if one leg is hobbled.

No single magic bullet can re-energize the Pinellas economy. But the best bet may be the county's proposed mass-transit system.

Best known as Greenlight Pinellas, the proposed system would significantly improve county bus service and build a 24-mile light rail line connecting Clearwater and St. Petersburg via the Carillon business district. The system would be financed with a 1 percentage point boost in the county sales tax in exchange for a reduction in property taxes.

As a county commissioner, Welch is frustrated by the slow pace of change. He argues that the heated debate over a county mass-transit system should not obsess solely over the pros and cons of the light rail component.

"This is about the future of Pinellas County," he told a St. Petersburg audience this past week at a program focused on mass transit issues.

"We have been talking about modernizing transit for 30 years, and we are still not getting it done," he says. "We have studied this to death." The county's current transportation plan of cramming more and more lanes on overcrowded roads won't work.

"We are losing pace to every other metro area," he warns.

A referendum on the 30-year mass-transit plan goes before Pinellas voters in November. At this point, its chances of success remain murky.

But mass-transit proponents are reorganizing with plans to sharpen their public message. They hope voter approval this fall will inspire Hillsborough County to approve its own system that would link the two counties. Hillsborough first tried and failed to win approval of a bus and rail transportation plan several years ago.

So far, Meidel offers the strongest economic argument for voting for the Pinellas mass-transit plan.

Better bus service is a winner, he says, because it sends a message to existing and potentially new companies that there is a county system in place that will help get workers more reliably to and from a place of business. Younger people, increasingly eager to build lifestyles that depend less on expensive cars and crowded commutes, also will be attracted to better public transportation.

To Meidel, building the 24-mile rail line could become the most significant source of redevelopment that Pinellas has seen in generations. A rail line will draw new businesses like a magnet to operate near a rail station, Meidel suggests. Rail provides a competitive edge, making it easier for potential employees to get to work, and for businesses to hire from a bigger pool of potential workers.

In turn, land near a rail line is much more likely to be redeveloped with new office or manufacturing space, Meidel says. And that could lead to fresh demand for new housing stock — sorely missing in Pinellas — as more people choose to live close to their work and to the opportunity to get around by rail.

"At the end of the day, a business needs a reason to do all that here," Meidel argues. "Transit makes it possible for redevelopment to become financially feasible."

Just remember, this is long-term stuff. If a light rail line does win voter approval this fall, it would take more than a decade before it starts operation. And it would take even longer before the initial 24-mile rail could connect to any additional rail service that may develop.

Or Pinellas voters can choose to endorse the status quo. After all, Pinellas seems prosperous enough, right?

The county's unemployment rate is below 6 percent. Pinellas is enjoying a streak of record tourism. Downtown St. Petersburg and Clearwater continue to show signs of improving vitality.

What's more, Pinellas boasts a solid corporate base. The county is home to four of the bay area's six biggest public corporations, from Fortune 500-listed Tech Data and Jabil to Raymond James and TV-digital shopping giant HSN. Pinellas also has the second-highest concentration of manufacturing jobs (30,000) in the state.

But look closer. While some of those major companies are growing, they are not adding significant numbers of jobs in Pinellas. In recent years the number and size of job announcements in Pinellas pale when compared with the rapid and diverse expansions happening in Hillsborough.

It's been many years since Pinellas announced a major corporate relocation. For good reason.

A company contemplating a large-scale property or campus in Pinellas faces limited options. There are only three large undeveloped tracts available in the county: a Superfund cleanup site once occupied by Stauffer Chemical, the now-closed Airco golf course next to a Pinellas airport, and the historic Toytown landfill just east of Interstate 275 near the Valpak building.

Maybe the real question boils down to this: What kind of economy does Pinellas want in the coming decades?

Pinellas may have to choose between an economy that can better compete for new business, better-paying jobs and an opportunity to grow again. And, right now, that means a major commitment — like overhauling mass transit.

Or it can accept one that flatlines, and plays second fiddle to more prosperous counties far into the future.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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