Tampa Bay lags behind peer cities in too many ways

The area did not rank well against 19 other metro areas.
The Tampa Bay area didn't stack up well against 19 other peer cities. [Times (2018)]
The Tampa Bay area didn't stack up well against 19 other peer cities. [Times (2018)]
Published Jan. 3, 2020|Updated Jan. 3, 2020

Competition can be humbling. Just when you think you’re getting good at something, a better player reveals your flaws. You go from feeling like the bee’s knees to feeling gut-punched.

I felt a little like that reading the 2020 Regional Competitiveness Report compiled by the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and the United Way Suncoast.

The Tampa Bay area has record low unemployment, a vibrant restaurant scene and a widening tax base. Construction cranes populate our downtowns. The University of South Florida is on the rise. Tourism keeps setting records.

Still, the area didn’t stack up well against 19 similar-sized metro areas. We’re getting better in some ways. But so are Minneapolis, Denver, Austin and Raleigh-Durham. That’s the thing about competing with other cities. It’s nonstop. None of the players rest, let alone retire.

The report looked at 55 measures grouped into six categories — economic vitality, innovation, infrastructure, talent, civic quality and outcomes. The analysis included everything from the number of patents per capita to how many kids live in poverty to the walkability of the streets.

RELATED: Meet Tampa Bay’s highest-paid CEOs.

Rick Homans, CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership.
Rick Homans, CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership. [ Times ]

Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, equated the report to an annual medical checkup. The data helps identify strengths and weaknesses, but it takes action to cure what ails us. He said the findings showcased several “strong warning signs” about the area’s economy and provided another wakeup call for business, political and nonprofit leaders.

“We either want to be exceptional, or we want to be average,” said Homans, who has helped publish a similar annual state of the region report since 2017. “And if we want to be exceptional, we need to pay attention to these numbers because they compare us to peer communities that have set the bar a little higher.”

The Tampa Bay area ranked first in only one measure, net migration. It’s reassuring that lots of people want to move here. But our population growth — and resulting economic boost — helps plaster over some of our blemishes. It also exacerbates other deficiencies like a dearth of affordable housing for new teachers, police officers and other critical workers.

The area finished near the bottom in 20 indicators. We were worst in six — median household income, transit ridership per capita, the number of miles driven by transit vehicles, the share of children in foster care, the slice of 25- to 64-year-olds who work or are looking for work, and per capita gross regional product, a measure of the area’s total economic output.

Arguably the most disconcerting results were in the talent category, shorthand for the quality of an area’s workforce. The Tampa Bay area ranked last or second to last in five of the dozen indicators. We placed in the top half in two — ninth in science, technology, engineering and math degrees awarded per capita and 10th in academic and technical certificates conferred by postsecondary institutions.

Last year, we didn’t break the top 10 in any of the talent indicators. That’s progress, albeit modest. We have a long way to go to catch Raleigh-Durham, which placed in the top four in nine of the talent measures.

Companies follow talent, especially young, well-educated workers. They open new offices or relocate to areas where they know they can find quality employees. While we enjoy a steady stream of new residents, we aren’t luring our share of millennials, “a key input to regional economic performance,” the report found. We ranked 14th for the number of 25- to 34-year-olds moving to the area, attracting them at half the rate of Portland, Oregon.

Our transit woes don’t help persuade well-educated young workers to move here. Nor do low wages. The report found that only residents in Houston and Miami spent a higher percentage of their incomes on housing and transportation, dealing another blow to the Tampa Bay area’s tired pitch of being a cheap place to live.

The Tampa Bay area scored better in quality of life measures. We enjoy a low crime rate and comparatively good air quality. Commuters here spent less time in congestion than the national average and the physical condition of our roads is better than in most of our peer cities. And while the report didn’t compare hours of sunshine or days above 70 degrees, our beaches and balmy climate help make up for some of the other flaws.

“We continue to have very favorable trends around migration, population growth, business growth, and quality of life,” Homans said. “Those things moving in the right direction create a real opportunity to solve the other problems.”

Homans was optimistic that the many transit and transportation projects underway — and others being proposed — in the Tampa Bay area would help boost our rankings in several categories. He called transit “a gateway indicator” that affects many other economic measures, including wages and access to childcare and education. It can also entice more people to go back to work.

“Good transit allows people to access jobs throughout the market," he said. “The data shows that when you don’t have the transit options that most other communities have, you’ve really limited yourself in terms of how far you can go as a community.”

The report stings a little. Who wouldn’t want their hometown to score better? But the findings provide an important blueprint for how to move forward.

How Tampa Bay ranked

The 2020 Regional Competitiveness Report compared 20 metro areas across 55 economic and quality of life indicators. The report, which will be released Thursday at the State of the Region 2020 Community Luncheon at the University of South Florida, defined the Tampa Bay area as Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Hernando, Citrus, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

The area performed well in a handful of indicators:

Net migration (first)

Crime rate per 100,000 residents (second)

Air quality (third)

Violent crime rate (fourth)

Starting businesses (fourth)

… but ranked poorly in a lot more:

Median household income (last)

Miles driven by transit vehicles per resident (last)

Transit ridership per capita (last)

Children in foster care (last)

Labor force participation ages 25-64 (last)

Per capita gross regional product (last)

Average wage (19th)

Pedestrian/cyclist fatalities (19th)

Residents with at least an associates degree (19th)

At least a bachelor’s degree (19th)

Graduate or professional degree (19th)

Small business research and technology grants (19th)

Housing affordability as a percent of income (18th)

Average household income bottom 20 percent of earners (18th)

Fast facts from the report

  • The Tampa Bay area had the highest median age — 44.9 years — among the 20 metro areas. Locally, Hillsborough was youngest at 37.3, and Citrus was the oldest at 58.
  • The population of the eight-county area was 4.8 million. It should reach nearly 5.2 million by 2024.
  • Only four of the 19 other metro areas added residents at a faster rate from 2013 through 2018. But over the next five years, the growth in population will slow, putting Tampa Bay in the middle of the pack.
  • The median household income was $55,071. Sarasota was highest at $61,683. Citrus was lowest at $39,964. The U.S. median: $61,937.