Thursday, June 21, 2018
Opinion

Mark Sharpe: The key to growing Tampa Bay's economy

Perfect vision is 20/20, and 2020 can be the year Tampa Bay becomes a permanent top 10 metro area for economic growth. It just takes clear-eyed vision and unrelenting effort.

We know the economy is changing, with new products, new means of production and new modes of service delivery affecting every facet of our lives. We experience it every time we take a trip using rideshare platforms such as Uber and Lyft or book an overnight stay with Airbnb. New developments in 3D printing, artificial intelligence, automated technology for cars, and virtual and augmented reality are going to change how we work and play — and where we choose to live.

Silicon Valley is the progenitor of this technological engine, but other regions are rising across the nation, with approximately 15 "brain hubs" emerging as serious competitors within distinct realms of technological innovation. Those metros that create high-wage jobs also experience an increase in median income for non-high-wage jobs. This means you don't need to wear a lab coat or have a doctorate to benefit.

This is where economic theory becomes strategic opportunity for Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay Times business columnist Robert Trigaux has written extensively of Tampa's lagging median wages as compared to other top metros. This is the bad news as it depresses our ability to attract or retain the highly sought after tech talent necessary to build great businesses. The good news: Trigaux also reports that the Milken Institute's rankings of best cities placed Tampa No. 33 as measured by jobs, wages, salaries and tech output. Tampa Bay ranked 169th in 2009. We are moving in the right direction. Can we break into the top 10 by 2020? Yes, and the newly formed Tampa Innovation Alliance holds the key.

The Alliance anchors — USF, Moffitt Cancer Center, Busch Gardens, Florida Hospital, the University Mall and more than 220 businesses — have been busy shaping a unified innovation district, which is now rebranding the university area into a place of innovation and high-wage job creation. The Alliance has partnered with CareerSourceTampa Bay, University Area Community Development Corp., Tampa Bay Technology Forum, Hillsborough Community College and research and innovation powerhouse USF to become a White House-designated TechHire community to ensure everyone has an opportunity to participate in the digital economy. This means while we are creating high-wage jobs we also are training the workforce that has missed out on the advantages of higher wage jobs. That will help raise our median GDP over time.

The Florida High Tech Corridor partnered with the University of South Florida to study the economic effect of its research activity and found an annual $400 million impact to the state. USF leads the nation in patent production, licensing of patents and startup generation. Digging deeper, we know that there are approximately 12,000 STEM jobs out of the 74,000 jobs in the Alliance area. Our challenge is to connect the Alliance anchors together into a recognized innovation destination that leverages the power of USF, Moffitt and our other partners into a high-tech job-generating machine. A doubling of STEM jobs in the Alliance area would propel Hillsborough County and Tampa Bay as a recognized technology hub, creating the very jobs necessary to lift median wages and help us move from 33rd into the top 10.

I am certain that with clear-eyed focus this can be done. Hillsborough County has put a down payment of $2 million into the planning effort for an Innovation District in the Alliance area, and the state of Florida has committed $1.25 million. An earlier study funded by the Florida High Tech Corridor and USF Research Park stated we can double the number of high-tech jobs in the area. This would propel the Tampa metro into the top 10 of best-performing cities and cement our place as a brain hub, which will draw the best talent from around the world to live, work and play.

Technology is changing our world. The epicenter of job creation is changing as well. Our strategic objective must be to seize and ride this technology wave and plant our region squarely in the top 10 without delay. This effort will generate a huge return in jobs, higher salaries and improved GDP, lifting the quality of life for us all. It is time to focus, because 2020 is not that far away.

Mark Sharpe is executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance and a former Hillsborough County commissioner.

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