In race for Central Florida growth, Orlando will pass Tampa Bay

Won't be too long before Tampa Bay's longtime little brother, Orlando, becomes the bigger sibling of the Central Florida economy.

Long-term economic forecasts say the "gross metro product" — a metropolitan region's GNP — of Orlando should catch and surpass that of Tampa Bay in about 16 years or about 2029.

What is Orlando doing that Tampa Bay is not? Both regions want to grow and upgrade their economies. What will push Orlando ahead of Tampa Bay?

Location, location, location.

Not only can Orlando expand geographically in every direction. Not only is the region already familiar to millions. But longer term, coastal Florida will get increasingly crowded, driving more newcomers — including retiring baby boomers — into the interior of the state. And many will end up in Orlando.

So says economist Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida.

Yes, that UCF based in Orlando. Does that mean Snaith favors Orlando's growth prospects? Maybe. But I agree with his forecasts. Over decades, the potential to get bigger lies more with a focused Orlando than the more balkanzied Tampa Bay, whose western edge along the Gulf of Mexico is already pretty packed.

"As the coastal area gets more expensive, more people will be squeezed into the middle of the state," Snaith argues.

Orlando's gross metro product this year will hit $98 billion. Tampa Bay's will be $106 billion, 8 percent bigger.

By 2029, forecasts say, Orlando's $177.8 billion of output will edge out Tampa Bay's $177.2 billion. By 2042, Orlando's economy should hit $282 billion, 6 percent bigger than Tampa Bay's.

Part of me is miffed that Tampa Bay will slip behind Orlando. Yet, signs of Orlando's rise are already apparent.

Orlando is a tourism mecca historically driven by Disney and, lately, Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Tampa Bay can't compete with such pop entertainment allure.

Tampa Bay lost its chance to join a modern transportation system last year when the feds diverted to other states money initially pledged to a Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line. Florida Gov. Rick Scott opposed the federal deal, citing the risk of state funds being on the hook to cover future cost overruns.

Since then, Orlando defied mass-transit opponents, even winning Scott's support for a regional commuter rail line called SunRail. Now there's talk about connecting a private rail line between Orlando and Miami. Any statewide network of passenger lines must inevitably run through Orlando's strategic location in the state.

As Snaith points out, the Miami area is hemmed in between water and the Everglades. And Jacksonville seems a bit too far north to become a main attraction for many lured to Florida for the sunshine and mild winters.

Tampa Bay will continue to grow nicely, right along with faster-expanding Orlando, Snaith says. Both metro regions talk often about coordinating their growth, connected by the I-4 Corridor.

Says Snaith: "They may look like twin cities in the future."

That's not a bad economic forecast at all.

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

In race for Central Florida growth, Orlando will pass Tampa Bay 09/10/12 [Last modified: Monday, September 10, 2012 7:11pm]

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