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If Orlando's moving to economic fast lane, how far behind is Tampa Bay?

Is Tampa Bay about to be economically eclipsed by Orlando?

Not long ago, that question would have been met by snorts of disbelief. Not only was Tampa Bay a bigger metropolitan economy. It also offered a compelling coastal presence, a formidable port for trade, beach tourism, better business diversification and robust growth.

And smaller Orlando? Sure, it had a great airport (so does Tampa Bay). But back out tourism magnets like Disney and a Harry Potter attraction, and what's left?

Plenty, it seems. Orlando is cultivating businesses faster and smarter than Florida's other metro areas. Consider this recent Reuters story:

"Orlando is leading Florida out of recession and expanding so briskly the city best known for theme parks is poised to push aside Miami as the state's fastest growing metropolis for at least a generation."

Orlando alone generated 23,000 jobs in the year ending in February of the 50,000 jobs created in Florida.

That story and others cite a ranking of the nation's major metro areas based on "economic strength." The 2010 rankings were produced by William Fruth of the Policom Corp. research firm in Palm City. His numbers show Orlando ranked No. 1 in Florida and 27th among 366 metro areas nationwide.

By contrast, Tampa Bay ranked behind not only Orlando, but also Miami-Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville in this state. Nationally, Tampa Bay ranked 85th among 366 metro areas. That's 58 metro slots lower nationwide than Orlando. In 2009, Tampa Bay ranked 50th nationally, which means the metro area's strength dropped a startling 35 spots in one year.

On Monday, Fruth said his new June data will show Orlando's rank falling a few slots. But Tampa Bay's improved, moving it from 85th closer to its more typical ranking near 50.

"Both Orlando and Tampa Bay are good areas," Fruth said.

But Orlando will lead in economic strength. He defines "strength" as a mix of "quality" jobs and wages, plus the outlook for retail and construction employment. Fruth also gauges welfare and Medicaid data that he calls indicators of a poor economy. They all factor into his annual strength rankings.

Fruth argues that the current efforts by state government to streamline regulations and reduce growth management laws will eventually help a debilitated state economy — once businesses feel they can trust the direction of Florida's intentions.

Not much will change, he said, if industry suspects probusiness laws being adopted now will simply be reversed after the next election. Either way, Florida's economic rebound will be slow.

One example of Orlando's surge and diversification is the rise of its so-called Medical City cluster rising at Lake Nona and made up of area hospitals, biotech firm Sanford Burnham Institute, a University of Central Florida medical school and other related medical entities.

Leading that charge is Rasesh Thakkar, chief executive with the Tavistock Group investment firm, responsible for much of Medical City's development.

His secret? Driven people make things happen. Says Thakkar: "You have to have maniacs on your team."

So that's Orlando's secret. Can we borrow a few?

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

If Orlando's moving to economic fast lane, how far behind is Tampa Bay? 05/02/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2011 11:42pm]

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