Beauty — and apparently a metro area's economic performance — is in the eye of the beholder.
When the Tampa Bay Partnership recently issued its twice-a-year economic report card comparing Tampa Bay to five other Southern metro areas, we improved dramatically. Charlotte, too dependent on the struggling banking industry, fell like a rock to last place.
Now comes Charlotte's new benchmark report, out this week, that ranks Charlotte No. 3 out of nine Southern metro areas. And Tampa? It's in the basement at No. 8, just ahead of last-place Jacksonville.
Okay, class: Put on your rose-colored glasses. Now we all can see what we want to see, if the right statistics and comparative methodologies are employed.
Benchmarking studies that compare competing metro areas can be big business in economic development circles. When companies with potential expansion or relocation plans come calling, metro areas want to be able to show their economic standings, like a promising Major League Baseball team. See, we're only three games out of first!
To get a better perspective, I talked to Larry Henson, the Tampa Bay Partnership's business intelligence officer. He's put together the last six comparative scorecards. He said his scorecard and Charlotte's differ in the time periods chosen for assessing performance. The Tampa Bay report always uses the most current numbers, most recently comparing data from the first quarter of 2009 vs. the same period of 2008.
The goal is an unvarnished look at all six metro areas, which explains why Tampa Bay was, until this latest report, ranked sixth and last place for two scorecards in a row.
I also asked the author of Benchmark Charlotte 2009, University of North Carolina-Charlotte associate professor of geography Harry Campbell, for his thoughts. The Charlotte report takes a long-term view, he said. Tampa takes a short-term view.
Charlotte's benchmarking uses multiple-year data. That makes it more historically accurate but does less of a job capturing the "right now" 2009 state of the economy in each of the metro areas.
"There are pros and cons to both approaches," Campbell said. "In many ways, the Tampa report does a better job of illustrating how each of the areas is faring during this recession."
Henson, to his credit, was blunt in saying economic development groups enjoy plenty of "artistic license" when assembling reports meant to market cities in the best possible light. But that was never the goal of the Tampa Bay scorecard. It's supposed to help economic development officials make better decisions about how to strengthen the Tampa Bay area.
I learned plenty from both benchmarking reports. But the extreme disparity in metro rankings left me wondering, to paraphrase Mark Twain:
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. And sometimes economic benchmarking studies.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.