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Trigaux: Tampa Bay must pick strong suit, then play it

If Friday brought sad news that the country shed 240,000 more jobs last month and bumped the U.S. unemployment rate to a 14-year high of 6.5 percent — pretty much assuring our already nasty regional jobless rate of 7 percent is still heading north — what better day to ask:

How does the Tampa Bay area get back on the prosperity track?

Trying hard to get us all there is Stuart Rogel, CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership. The regional economic development and marketing group is attempting to evolve from a mere promoter of the seven-county business scene into a genuine shaper of an increasingly complex regional economy.

The partnership's neck deep in messy regional transportation issues. It's increasingly political by influencing a Tampa Bay contingency of state legislators. It's asking the state and local education bureaucracy: How can we help raise the bar?

Be careful what you wish for.

Lately, this area's economy sustained plenty of dings and dents. After heady job growth from 2004 through 2006, Tampa Bay began shedding jobs in early 2007 with accelerating and disproportionately heavy losses ever since.

In a lengthy conversation Friday, Rogel acknowledged that the job losses— mainly in construction and related industries — prove the Tampa Bay economy is less diversified than many realize. And it confirms the partnership's 2009-2011 "Bigger Bolder Better" strategic plan — to help foster economic and sustainable growth, attract better-paying jobs and encourage opportunities for a diverse population — sounds good, at least on paper.

But can it deliver?

Rogel points to his group's role in the recent recruitments of such smart businesses as SRI in St. Petersburg, Draper Lab in both Tampa and St. Pete and M2Gen in Tampa.

But are high-tech research firms like these the future of this area or just lucky snares attracted by hefty economic incentives?

Rogel suggests there's one way to better the odds that strong businesses continue to land here. Find out what Tampa Bay's good at — or wants to be good at — and fight like hell to make the metro area the best it can be.

For a while it was call centers, so much that Tampa Bay called itself — without an ounce of irony — the Call Center Capital of the country.

For a while Hillsborough County strived to be Wall Street South, successfully recruiting what is now JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. and Capital One. That's worked pretty well, though Capital One's gone and Chase just said it will outsource 300 of those jobs to India.

Pinellas County boasted it was a medical manufacturing magnet and tried to make some headway with that message. There's not much momentum.

After the University of South Florida recruited Judy Genshaft as president and after former Gov. Jeb Bush spent megabucks attracting Scripps Research to Florida, "biotech" became the Big Buzzword for the state. That mantra has not gone away but the bulk of the state's successes are clustered near Scripps on Florida's east coast. Not here.

But one thing crystalized. In the past decade, USF transformed from a mere commuter university into a national R&D player, capturing some of the rich federal grant money that flows in that league. That turned USF into one of Tampa Bay's Big 3 economic engines.

The other two? The Port of Tampa and Tampa International Airport, argues Rogel, who joined what was then an immature Tampa Bay Partnership in 1994 when he was 39.

So where are we? Tampa Bay's got to pinpoint and play to its economic strengths. The game is long past Hillsborough outfoxing Pinellas for new companies, and moving beyond Tampa Bay outcompeting Orlando or Miami for better jobs.

In Rogel's bigger world, Tampa Bay belongs to a megaregion made up of Orlando, Jacksonville and South Florida. Together, they compose the 15th-largest regional economy in the world. We're ranked just below the Northern California region and just ahead of Japan's Fukuoka-Kyushu region.

These are the new players we're grappling with for jobs and smart people. So ponder quickly: What can we truly excel at in these Economic Olympics?

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

Trigaux: Tampa Bay must pick strong suit, then play it 11/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 4:42pm]
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