Florida's economic outlook uncertain, but positive signs appear

Over Friday's luncheon meeting served up with baby arugula, herb-roasted organic chicken and cinnamon apple stack with crispy phyllo at the Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club, many of Tampa Bay's economic development leaders also consumed a bellyaching forecast for this metro region.

Break out the Pepto-Bismol. On the same day Florida's latest unemployment rate was unveiled — 11.2 percent statewide, 11.7 percent in Tampa Bay — Brookings Institution senior fellow Alan Berube politely told a ballroom of regional a Who's Who that Tampa Bay is undereducated, weak in exports and grossly underserved by venture capitalists funding businesses.

"Challenges are many," Berube conceded to his audience, then, for laughs, displayed a photo of Josh Freeman — the 1-8 Bucs' third starting quarterback this season — and praised Tampa Bay for its willingness "to embrace change."

It's not all bad news. There are silver linings I'll mention shortly. But at the start of the traditional year-end string of annual meetings by economic development groups, from the Tampa Bay Partnership (which held Friday's Innisbrook event) and downtown partnerships to the too many balkanized chambers of commerce across our region, the late-2009 answer to How Are We Doing? feels hard to digest.

The business community is told repeatedly by think tank experts like Berube that we are going through a game-changer recession, that we can't wait for a rebound and simply go back to our old ways of doing business. Worst of all, many of those jobs lost in the past year — 338,300 statewide, 58,500 in Tampa Bay — are just not going to come back. And many of those that do return will pay less than before.

Which gets us wondering: Did anybody get the number of the bus that smacked our once-humming economy?

We're wondering if there's any meat to the vague rumor that RadioShack is thinking about swapping its headquarters in Fort Worth for Tampa Bay or perhaps another new metro spot.

We're scratching our heads at St. Petersburg's downtown BayWalk trying to figure out how the retail/movie complex went so quickly from 100 percent cool to 0 percent charisma.

We're bummed by the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays not only want a new stadium but may seek one away from downtown St. Pete.

We're pained by 2009's "greatest hits" — greatest regional job hits, that is — that include: the closing of Plant City's biggest employer, Smithfield Foods, and the end of 760 jobs; the cutback of 685 jobs at Continental Airlines' reservation center in Tampa; and the decision by Altadis, the parent of Hav-A-Tampa, to close its local cigar plant, putting 500 workers out on the street.

We're appalled at Florida's fiscal crisis that's pegged the state in a Pew Center study as one of the 10 in the nation most similar to nearly bankrupt California.

We are encouraged by the talk of state-level economic development groups to raise Florida's mediocre bar for education and pursue so-called 21st century industries like biotech. But we are cynical of success because Florida's public education system continues to be mercilessly squeezed in Tallahassee while the state university system scrimps along.

On the other hand, we're amazed at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's choice of Hillsborough County's school district to receive $100 million in grant money to help put more effective teachers in classrooms.

We're impressed by the new All Children's Hospital complex in St. Petersburg that opened its doors for public tours Saturday.

We're excited by the potential of MIT-spinoff Draper Lab opening two high-tech facilities — at Tampa's University of South Florida and at a St. Petersburg "clean room" manufacturing site — and by next month's ribbon cutting of SRI International's new research facility near USF St. Petersburg.

We're crossing our fingers for a trifecta from tourism leaders pitching Tampa Bay as the site for another Super Bowl, the FIFA World Cup soccer games and a Republican National Convention.

So let's ask again: How Are We Doing? There are bright spots out there — if we're lucky. And smart. And motivated. I'm stocking up on Pepto, just in case.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Florida's economic outlook uncertain, but positive signs appear 11/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 7:56pm]

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