Tampa Bay residents don't need another academic study to know the local economy remains anemic. But an analysis by the Brookings Institution has put it into perspective: The area's turnaround since the recession bottomed out in early 2010 is the third-weakest among 100 major metropolitan areas. Only the residents of Fort Myers and Sacramento, Calif., have it worse. But rather than wallow in misfortune, the region's political and civic leaders should work harder together to create more jobs and move Tampa Bay toward a brighter future.
It's long been clear the region has particular systemic issues. The housing collapse hit Tampa Bay particularly hard, and the bay area faces challenges due to the dearth of major corporations and the large number of struggling small businesses. But better cooperation and coordination across the region — vs. predictable parochialism — is the path forward.
An essential first step is for bay area communities to quit competing with one another. The silo mentality is out of date in a region where tens of thousands of residents commute to work across county lines. MacDill Air Force Base, the University of South Florida and the Pinellas beaches are regional draws and economic drivers for the entire west coast. Rather than spend tax money bidding against one another, the counties should present themselves as a package to compete against larger metro areas with higher densities.
This requires a mind-set change but not reinventing the wheel. The region continues at some levels to move beyond parochialism. The bay area formed a cooperative to manage its water supply, the resource most vital for growth, and in recent years it has come together on the environment, tourism, professional sports and (most recently) transportation. On Thursday, Pinellas' tourism bureau announced that it had contributed $140,000 toward a $700,000 incentive deal to bring nonstop flights between Tampa International Airport and Switzerland. Hillsborough and Pinellas also are set to explore consolidation of bus services. And there are ongoing talks on both sides of the bridges about a strategy for keeping the Tampa Bay Rays.
Putting a regional lens on job development will require a new level of civic activism. Business leaders working under the aegis of the Tampa Bay Partnership were instrumental in laying the groundwork for a new regional transportation authority. While the momentum from that effort failed to produce a light rail plan for Hillsborough, county voters nonetheless took their first crack toward adopting a 21st century transit system. The partnership has remained engaged since. It is crafting a regional business plan — the first ever in the bay area — to bring together everyone from local elected officials to chamber leaders, university and college presidents and business leaders to craft a plan for targeting and developing high-growth industries.
Friday's report that Florida's unemployment rate remained at 10.7 percent in August, more than a point higher than the national average, underscores the need for a breakout strategy.
Every community in the state is putting tax breaks, development incentives and other sweeteners on the table. The challenge for this region, where joblessness is still hovering at 11 percent, is to create a niche that builds on the weather and tax climate that favors all of Florida. A fresh set of eyes will help. In Tampa alone, leadership changes are under way at the airport, tourism bureau and job development agency — and Tampa has a new mayor. The area's business community is also honing in on promising industries, from military and marine technology to medical research and manufacturing.
The poor showing documented by Brookings should create an even greater sense of urgency among the region's leaders to work together and develop a broad economic vision for Tampa Bay rather than pursuing separate, competing agendas.