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Tampa Bay's identity crisis: Maybe it's time to fix it

Tampa attorney and board-member-of-everthing-important Rhea Law was asked this week what most worries corporations thinking about expanding in this metro area.

Schools. Transportation. Labor pool availability and skills. Quality of life.

Countering any negative perceptions is also critical, says Law, CEO and board chairman of Tampa's Fowler White Boggs law firm and chairman of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. But it takes a lot more effort to fix a bad image than to avoid one in the first place.

Well said. It can be a daunting task to mend bad publicity for a metro area, especially one that's struggling economically.

Sometimes negative perceptions aren't far off the mark. But sometimes they are.

I ran into just such a concern earlier this month at a Pinellas County-focused meeting on how to raise the education bar and, in turn, the quality of the county's work force.

Pinellas School Board chairwoman Carol Cook expressed frustration that Florida schools — long suffering from perceptions of mediocrity — were ranked No. 5 nationally in a survey while ranking 48th or 49th in teacher pay. Cook's beef? That the high national rank is so little known. That, she says, needs to change.

Indeed. A study of the Tampa Bay area by SRI this year found that a "major crack" in the economic foundation of this area was a "lack of clarity about a cohesive, forward-looking regional identity."

I have a suggestion.

What would happen if we gathered Tampa Bay's best and brightest communications minds and tossed them in a room with this task:

What gets the least-deserved bum rap in the Tampa Bay area, and how can we counter that negative perception with a more positive message?

Is it our public schools? (A good candidate.) Our university system? (Not yet, perhaps, but it may happen as higher education budgets dwindle.)

Or is it the quality of our labor pool? Or (lack of) regional transportation?

This must not become a public relations "Let's blow smoke at the public" assignment. It should focus on improving perceptions of decent and good things in our metro area that somehow got stuck with a lousy image.

Some negative perceptions are new. I was reading an excerpt of a new book called Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It. The book singles out the Tampa Bay metro area as one that can't keep up with the better educated cities like San Francisco, Boston or Washington. Visiting the nation's capital this summer, it felt flush with cash, immune from recession and awash with young people with advanced degrees. Those cities will probably compete well in the 21st century.

Tampa Bay, the book argues, is a "lower tier" place whose middle class grew in good economic times but now is simply a "mirage." Ouch.

I hope to chat soon with the book's author, Don Peck, in search of more insights into his rough assessment of the place we live and work.

But in Pinched, the damage is done. By its measure, Tampa Bay's a backwater.

Let's prove Peck wrong. We need a stronger message — not hype and bull — about what's going right here.

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

Tampa Bay's identity crisis: Maybe it's time to fix it 08/16/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 9:56pm]

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