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In economic rankings, why is Raleigh-Durham still kicking our backside?

Five years ago, the first economic scorecard ranking Tampa Bay against five other metro areas landed us at No. 2, tied with Raleigh-Durham and behind No. 1 Charlotte.

Impressive. But short-lived. Times changed as the economic downturn smothered some metro areas more than others. When the latest economic scorecard was released this week, Raleigh-Durham was No. 1, as it routinely has been in recent years. By a big margin. And Tampa Bay? It ranked way back at No. 5, a shade above Jacksonville. Truth is, we easily could have been at rock bottom No. 6 had we not tinkered with one of the measures that made up our economic score.

These rankings were created by the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional economic development group.

Alas, the recession inflicted far more damage on Florida cities. Worse, the gap that now separates No. 1 Raleigh-Durham from the likes of Tampa Bay feels as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon.

How did Tampa Bay fall behind so far, so fast? We've chronicled that story. But how did Raleigh-Durham prove so effective in not driving over the same economic cliff?

So I asked for insights from Harvey Schmitt, CEO of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

Metro areas whose economies feasted on fast growth — that's Tampa Bay — are most vulnerable when growth halts.

"All of us got addicted to growth," Schmitt says.

His advice? Patience. You can't do much to hurry yourself out of a deep recession. But when things start to turn up, be prepared to play to your economic strengths.

"One of our strong suits is brainpower in the market place and the ability to translate it into job creation," Schmitt says, adding quickly, "not to say you don't have brainpower in the Tampa Bay region." Of course, Raleigh-Durham ranks fourth or even higher among metro areas across the country with the highest concentration of college degrees among people over 25.

Tampa Bay isn't even on that kind of list. It's a reminder: If you want higher-paying, smart industry jobs, raise the education bar.

Schmitt is not only an 18-year veteran heading the chamber in what is, hands down, the most economically vibrant metro area of size in the Southeast. Schmitt also ran the Tampa Chamber of Commerce before taking his North Carolina post in 1994. He knows this area well.

Right off the bat, Schmitt issued a big Thanks! to our economic scorecard whose results have made his home city stand out for years.

"It's a terrible job," he deadpans about his chamber duties in a top-ranked city. "And I will have to live with it."

Don't get Schmitt wrong. That's good-natured joking. He feels our pain. Raleigh-Durham's suffered, too. Just a lot less than Tampa Bay.

For starters, Raleigh's jobless rate is 7.3 percent. It's 12 percent here.

Raleigh is the seat of state government. The metro area boasts three major research universities plus Research Triangle Park. Its industry clusters include pharmaceutical, technology, clean energy and defense — all deep bench businesses, Schmitt says, in a metro area about half the size of Tampa Bay.

Communities in the South grew accustomed to the flow of businesses and people who moved from the North. When those same people got stuck in real estate that could not sell, that froze a lot of development across the South, Schmitt says.

Raleigh-Durham was better positioned than many metro areas to turn to internal growth, encouraging growth from the industry clusters already there.

"I think it is easy in this economic environment to want to pull your hair out," he sympathizes. "I wish I had some.

"But these economic conditions are beyond the control of people at the community level."

Even the planned purchase by Duke Energy of Raleigh-based Progress Energy, the giant power company that owns Progress Energy Florida, does not worry Schmitt.

He likens the deal to Progress Energy's (then known as CP&L) acquisition of Florida Power in St. Petersburg more than a decade ago. After the deal, Progress Energy remained prominent in St. Petersburg, just as Progress Energy as a subsidiary of Duke in Charlotte, N.C., still is expected to flex its muscles in the Raleigh economy.

"Look to capture growth as it develops," Schmitt counsels. And, he says, spend less time looking in the rearview mirror.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

. Fast facts

Ranking six metro areas

The economic scorecard is based on how each metro area ranks in employment/work force, income and productivity, housing, innovation, education and transportation. The lower the overall tally, the stronger the metro area.

Raleigh-Durham: 8

Dallas: 16

(tie) Charlotte: 21

(tie) Atlanta: 21

Tampa Bay: 27

Jacksonville: 28

Source: Tampa Bay Partnership Winter 2011 economic scorecard

In economic rankings, why is Raleigh-Durham still kicking our backside? 03/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 9:16pm]
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