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Decade was an economic roller coaster ride for Florida

For Tampa Bay, this soon-to-end decade felt like a series of economic (and real) tsunamis. The most consistent business buzzwords we heard over the past 10 years are bubbles, terrorism, deregulation and regulation, hurricane insurance, global competition and jobs.

That last word, jobs, was bi­polar. We were awash in jobs in the earlier portion of the decade, yet sorely lacking them as we leave 2009. It's bewildering to write that the Tampa Bay unemployment rate in December 2005 was an unthinkable 2.9 percent. Only four short years later we're at an unfathomable 12.3 percent and probably still rising.

Distinct themes emerged in this past decade of the Tampa Bay economy. Take a year-by-year tour with me. It truly does help to recall and ponder where we've been to better appreciate where we may be heading. Happy New Year.

2000: The bubble year. What goes around comes around. So, fittingly, we started this decade as we will end it, amid an economic bubble. This was a technology bubble in which 20-something millionaires were minted daily and profitless startups went public with the full-throated blessings of greedy and blinded investors — at least until the bubble burst in 2001. Not an auspicious start to a new millennium. Tampa Bay had its share of Internet-mania, and that obsession for quick returns would turn quickly to our real estate market.

2001: The security year. We had to formally wait until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the grinding halt inflicted on our economy, but after that it became all security, all the time. In Tampa Bay, companies chased deep-pocket security contracts. And we began pitching the metro area as a safe haven for Wall Street firms to open back-office operations far from vulnerable Manhattan.

2002: The corporate fraud year. Large-scale frauds by Enron, WorldCom and Tyco via accounting trickery dominated the news. Tampa's former Intermedia Communications got swept up in WorldCom's mess. And Florida became a place suspect executives invested ill-gotten gains in extravagant homes. The Bush administration's deregulation push drove Tampa's TECO Energy to build energy plants across the country, a strategy that would nearly sink it.

2003: The crummy wage scale year. Our mediocre wages were never a secret. The state long gloated over how cheap it is to live here and how much less people can be paid. Florida never fretted in such boom times, with low unemployment and lots of people moving into the state. Sunshine State — a movie critical of Florida's hypergrowth — served as a popular warning that things were getting out of hand as Florida wages fell further behind the national average.

2004: The USF economic engine year. Always a player in the regional economy, the University of South Florida made it a strategic priority. USF president Judy Genshaft embraced biotech as her economic mantra, and through the decade helped lead every major economic development group here. USF transcended county and city lines, deepening its role as a regional force. This is perhaps Tampa Bay's single most important business trend of the decade.

2005: The "Gee, competition is global" year. The word "outsourcing" began to take on real meaning as U.S. companies, scared by low-cost competition overseas, shipped more work elsewhere. Tampa Bay was no exception as companies like Sykes Enterprises, First Advantage Corp. and Jabil Circuit embraced cheaper overseas jobs, in effect replacing domestic expansion.

2006: The pricking of our housing bubble year. After years of accelerating increases in home prices across Tampa Bay and Florida, the bubble burst in midyear. Though no one realized it at the time, the eventual 40-50 percent drop in area home prices drained many Floridians of their net worth and buying power, and pushed millions of homeowners "underwater" with mortgages far greater than the value of their homes. It is Florida's greatest economic backlash of the past 50 years.

2007: The Florida becomes its own reality show year. What's real and surreal started to blend. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist promised in his election campaign to fix the state's dysfunctional property insurance market, but after lots of smoke and mirrors, little changed. Florida remains stuck with a financial time bomb should a major hurricane strike. No less mysterious, Progress Energy Florida, after its promise to build nuclear power plants in Levy County, began constantly raising the project's price tag, then lobbied for rate hikes to help pay up front for the added billions. Leadership credibility, that rare Florida commodity, suffered.

2008: The grass is greener elsewhere year. We sensed it before the statistics proved it, but lots of Floridians grew unhappy over Florida's rising expenses, lack of decent jobs and flabby leadership. So they moved away. In fact, the state lost 58,294 residents from April 2008 to April 2009, the first time since 1946 that Florida's population dipped. What we suspected then but know better now is that the state icon of "a thousand people a day" moving to Florida is long, long gone. Now what are we gonna do?

2009: The "time to rethink where we're going" year. Florida leaders seem to realize they can't simply wait for the recession to end and assume all will be fine. But now that we agree there's a core problem with the state's economic vision, who's going to help fix it? This was the year that the debate began anew over how to make Florida more competitive. Get better-paying jobs? We're trying, but that's a change that will take generations to have a significant impact. Attract younger, sharper people to our metro areas? Okay, but they need not only decent jobs but — and this is tougher — an actual career track opportunity here. Raise the bar on Florida's public education system? Sounds good, Floridians say. Just don't raise their taxes.

It is Florida's eternal economic pickle. We want so much but will pay for so little. Here's to a more enlightened decade ahead.

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

Decade was an economic roller coaster ride for Florida 12/26/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 27, 2009 8:40am]

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