Tampa Bay — all of Florida, for that matter — wants in the worst way to evolve into a 21st century state with an economy driven by brainy, well- paid workers like biotech scientists and nanotech engineers and hordes of young, university-trained entrepreneurs motivated to relocate, or stay, and start new companies.
I say go for it. Who says The Thinker can't have a Florida tan, wear a Speedo and enjoy Guavaween? But let's first do one very big reality check.
In the pecking order of metro areas with supereducated populations — precisely the kinds of folks best trained to do those jobs we so covet — we are the tail wagging the dog, the fast-food burger trailing the filet mignon, the TV audience watching The Biggest Loser instead of Lark Rise to Candleford.
Put bluntly, in the race to be a global player and a competitive metro area, Tampa Bay has to run faster, hotter and longer to recruit and retain talent just to catch up with at least some of the vast majority of major cities in the United States. Not that our business, educational and political leaders are not trying. They are. But they still lack focus, the resources and the intensity to elevate this metro area and this state up the evolutionary ladder of better-paying workplaces.
Nobody says this is easy or a quick task. But it does raise some practical questions. What can Tampa Bay really aspire to economically? Can we shoot too high intellectually in our quest for higher-end jobs? Can we suffer a failure to launch?
In two recent surveys ranking major metro areas by brainpower — one by CNN's Money magazine and the other by the Daily Beast, the online news commentary site now run by Tina Brown — Tampa Bay sits uncomfortably low on the totem pole.
Don't get upset. Tampa Bay is what it is: a very livable metro area with plenty to do, lots of natural beauty and plenty of frontage on the Gulf of Mexico. But it's not a megamind metro area like Boston or Washington or San Jose, Calif., or even Raleigh, N.C. It is not home to Harvard or MIT or Stanford or Duke. It boasts no headquarters like Google or IBM or Coca-Cola or Microsoft.
What is Tampa Bay? These two surveys suggest it's a metro area low in the pecking order of cities flush with college grads and Ph.D.s. Here, libraries do not bask on every street corner. We lack big lines of avid book readers purchasing lots of adult nonfiction.
Thinking big thoughts, being innovative, creating businesses and jobs — this stuff matters, as the Daily Beast suggests in its ranking of metro areas:
"A city's potential lies mostly with the ingenuity and brainpower of its citizens. Regions with intellectual vigor are more likely to bounce back; those without risk a stupor."
Now I take offense to such regional bias. I limit my stupor time, usually, to weekends and before 9 a.m. on weekdays.
The latest Daily Beast survey of smartest cities ranks Tampa Bay 49th in brainpower among 55 metro areas, just below No. 47 Miami and No. 48 Louisville, Ky., but above No. 50 Orlando.
Boston ranks first; Las Vegas was last at 55th.
At No. 49, Tampa Bay has only 16 percent of its population with bachelor's degrees and 8 percent with graduate degrees. The metro area purchased 2.2 million adult nonfiction books this year. That sounds like a lot, but consider that No. 1 Boston (granted, a larger metro area) bought more than 7 million nonfiction books.
Most disturbing in this ranking is how much lower Tampa Bay fell from its 2009 ranking at No. 33. That's a brainpower drop of 16 metro areas in one year.
The CNN Money magazine survey of smart (and dumb?) cities is more basic, relying on U.S. Census Bureau data, but is no less revealing. Tampa Bay ranks in the bottom 10 of cities based simply on a relatively slim percentage of its population with college degrees.
There's a price to pay for a less-educated community and a less-credentialed work force. It's well documented by the likes of urban economist Richard Florida and others that smart and creative people tend to look for other smart and creative people when they migrate to a new metro area.
Conversely, young college graduates here — be they grads of the University of South Florida or the University of Tampa or Eckerd College or Stetson Law School or the Ringling College of Art and Design or other area schools of higher learning — still tend to look to other metro areas with greater densities of smart jobs in hopes of securing both attractive work and a genuine opportunity to advance.
What's low-ranked Tampa Bay to do to recruit smarter workers?
That question has nagged business leaders for decades, well before Tampa adopted its 1980s hyper-hopeful slogan "America's Next Great City" or, in the 1990s, its less formal but more accurate nickname "Call Center Capital of America."
To attract more talent, I have three suggestions.
First, market (and do it right, not slapdash) Tampa Bay's best attributes that might appeal to smart and motivated people, young or older. These days that would include our weather, lifestyle, the concentration and variety of museums and sports teams, beaches, nature, increasingly affordable housing, the lack of a state income tax, the rise of USF, cutting-edge firms like SRI, Draper Lab and M2Gen, the military presence of MacDill Air Force Base, Bill Gates' choice of committing $100 million to Hillsborough County schools, the Florida Orchestra, and the atmosphere of Ybor City and Busch Gardens.
That's enough, for starters.
Second, market the testimonials of smart people already here. Nothing draws well-educated folks like more well-educated people. It reinforces that there are relevant job opportunities here, there is culture and, most of all, there are real, smart people who are happy to work and live here.
Third, let's elevate the intensity of improving the Tampa Bay area. Pick up the pace on economic development planning. Find, celebrate and recruit some of Tampa Bay's superior innovators — the folks starting cool companies, the authors writing worthy books, the managers deftly handling complex ventures, the professors who wow students and faculty — and draw on their combined talents for new metro-improving ideas and their sheer energy.
And stop glossing over Tampa Bay's subpar public schools. Raise the bar, even if it is only by building a volunteer army from the community to pitch in and help.
Here's one more suggestion. Advocates of Tampa Bay's proposed regional mass transit system need to get up after being defeated in the Nov. 2 election. That's when the penny tax to fund Hillsborough County's regional light rail, enhanced bus and roads plan was trounced by voters. Those backing the regional system need to dust themselves off, figure out why the transit initiative failed to pass — antitax sentiment in a recession factored as much or more than specific opposition to better mass transit — and get better prepared for Round 2.
Hint: Maybe sticking all the make-or-break work on Hillsborough County to lead the way, while Pinellas and Pasco and others sit and gawk, isn't the best regional strategy next time. (Remember the Daily Beast line above: Regions with intellectual vigor are more likely to bounce back; those without risk a stupor.) If we're still failing to win a better regional mass transit system by 2020, we deserve to rank last in smart city surveys.
Tampa Bay's no utopia. But if you don't market the area in a smart way, smart folks won't know it's here. Marketing, of course, is not the whole answer — not by a long shot — but it's a piece of it we don't seem to grasp lately.
Nobody likes to see surveys ranking Tampa Bay near the back of the line of innovative, smart metro areas.
Nobody says we have to stay there.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.