Some business predictions for 2014 are too easy. The Tampa Bay and Florida economies will grow a bit stronger. Check. Tourism records will be broken again. Most likely. Our disease-challenged state orange crop will shrink — again. No doubt.
So enough of the fluff. Here are 10 specific predictions for the coming year, based on 20-plus years of covering this region and the Sunshine State economy. Hey, nobody in the look-ahead industry bats a thousand. But in baseball, a hit every three times at the plate is all-star caliber.
1. Honk when New York eats our dust. Florida becomes the country's third-largest state in 2014, and trails only Texas and California. This comes as no surprise to those who follow such population trends. The 2014 prediction is less about size and more about what that step-up means. Florida's collective ego (and larger representation in government) gets a big boost by zipping by the Empire State. By outgrowing New York, Florida sends the message that its location, its taxes, its economic potential, and its likely future are perceived to be winners. After all, why move to any loser state? And that means Florida in 2014 has a remarkable opportunity to brag about its newfound No. 3 status among U.S. states. Smart marketers won't dare let this rare event get away.
2. Gov. Rick Scott, the most disliked Florida governor in modern history, will be re-elected next fall. Why? Because no opponent can counter his simplistic message that the state unemployment rate fell by nearly half since he took office in 2011.
3. A Pinellas County mass transit tax referendum set for November 2014 will succeed, but only after the Greenlight Pinellas campaign supporting the transit plan sharply ups its game and intensifies its message to distracted, disenchanted voters. If Pinellas pulls this off, the transportation challenge gets handed back to Hillsborough County.
4. The wishful idea of eventually relocating the Tampa Bay Rays to the Channelside area as a hip, urban sports stadium and catalyst to downtown development will suffer major setbacks as more critics point out the area's poor road access and parking infrastructure. If seriously boosting home game attendance is the goal, a Channelside destination will be hard-pressed to deliver a surge in ticket buyers. And that may spark new debate on alternate locations.
5. Despite some recent temporary financial setbacks to St. Petersburg-based global electronics manufacturer Jabil Circuit, the company conditionally commits to relocating its headquarters to the city's downtown from its location near the Carillon area. Why? Because Jabil understands what a powerful message the relocation of a Fortune 200 corporation can mean to a city greatly in need of a corporate boost. And because St. Petersburg under new mayor Rick Kriseman will wave extensive incentives at Jabil to assure the company it can get the type of cutting-edge headquarters it covets. Any actual move would remain years away.
6. Blind (or numb) to soaring global education competition, county public school systems across the Tampa Bay area will continue to tweak their internal systems and inflate the grades assigned to their individual schools. While bureaucrats slap each other on the backs for the surge in "A" schools, area high school graduates (and still too many who do not graduate) slip further behind in reading, math and — most of all — critical thinking skills. Don't believe me? Ask area business leaders in their moments of candor what they see when they assess young job candidates.
7. Downtown St. Petersburg, too narrowly comprised of high-priced condos and museums, finally starts to leverage its serious intellectual business assets. They include a promising but still unorganized marine science industry cluster (SRI and USF Marine Sciences, among other players), a health care consortium led by the Johns Hopkins-directed All Children's Hospital, USF St. Petersburg's own soon-to-rise College of Business building, and the 40,000-square-foot business incubator to appear in 2014 that will be called the St. Petersburg STEAM Center, which stands for "science, technology, engineering, arts and media."
8. The Channelside Bay Plaza property, a key piece of land in downtown Tampa's future, will resolve its lawsuits and squishy ownership status, putting the property clearly back in the hands of the Tampa Port Authority. That sets the stage for a much needed rethink about how to best make use of such a precious piece of downtown waterfront land. Consider wisely.
9. True business apprenticeships start to blossom across Tampa Bay that give both high school and university students real working experience at area companies. These are not "unpaid internships" but real-work (with pay) and seriously administered opportunities that prepare young people for a wide range of skills training and potential careers.
10. The lousy cards dealt by changes in flood insurance premiums to many homeowners along coastal Florida will not look any better in 2014. A leaderless Congress will hem and haw and likely do nothing to fix the draconian rate hikes called for by the federal Biggert-Waters Act. And within Florida, our lackluster state leadership will pass measures encouraging the small and weakly capitalized private property insurers still left in the state to start their own market for flood insurance coverage. Good luck on that in a coming year when discussions of global warming and rising oceans will only make Florida appear more vulnerable to flooding than ever before.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]