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It's not Austin or Denver, but Tampa Bay is getting cooler

Published Jun. 23, 2012

The Tampa Bay metro area has struggled for decades with the idea that it is not a "cool" place to live and work. At least when compared to the hippest cities.

Austin, Texas, is music/tech cool. We're not.

Boston is brainy/youth cool. We're not.

Washington, D.C., is public policy/power cool. We're not.

Denver is mountain mecca cool. We're not.

But are we cooler than we used to be?

Most definitely. When I relocated to Tampa Bay 21 years ago, if I mentioned the word "hip," people would ask when I was getting mine replaced.

We are cooler now and getting more so.

But there are challenges. If we are cooler, it's gone unnoticed to many. We are cooler in ways that don't necessarily make this region a magnet for that most coveted economic prize: go-getter college grads.

We're cooler, but even now fighting Florida's tired image as a retirement mecca and God's waiting room.

We're cooler, but still debating what we want to be cool for — steady tourism, biotech innovation, marine science reputation, technology cluster or as a place trying to appeal more to entrepreneurs.

If we're lucky, we'll end up modestly cool at several things. That's fine even if it never catapults Tampa Bay into the elite fraternity of the coolest metro areas.

The coolness issue bulled its way into a recent roundtable discussion I shared with some local technology company executives who are frustrated in finding people to hire with the right kind of tech skills. Unemployment among tech workers here is roughly 2 percent. Recruiting and keeping tech talent, these tech execs argue, would be a lot easier if this metro area had more buzz, more hipness and more reasons for smart and motivated people to cluster here.

"Tampa does not have the cool factor," says Steve MacDonald, CEO, serial entrepreneur and founder in 2001 of Tampa's myMatrixx. The pharmacy benefits manager, which employs about 125 and has six open positions, ranked No. 1,918 on Inc. magazine's list of the nation's 5,000 fastest-growing companies last year.

Companies themselves can do some cool things. They can produce cool products or use cutting-edge technology (always a draw for techies honing the latest skills). They can offer cool-looking offices. And, lest we ignore the obvious, they can pay well for top skills. But being based somewhere widely perceived as "cool" can be a huge draw in attracting and keeping talented people.

It seems Tampa Bay isn't cool enough to entice enough hotshot tech, social media and software developers to meet the needs of fast-growing firms like myMatrixx or mobile application developer Haneke Design in Tampa or St. Petersburg's Catalina Marketing, which analyzes consumer shopping preferences for retailers and brand manufacturers.

To help fill that gap, MacDonald's company and other area firms like Tampa's Bayshore Solutions opened offices in other cities in part to gain access to more workers in higher-density tech markets — cool cities like Austin and Denver.

That strategy has not always worked out as expected. After opening in Austin, myMatrixx did not find plentiful, or at least affordable, job applicants.

"We were naive," MacDonald says. Austin proved to be a bigger but also a more competitive market for tech workers.

A regionwide project kicked off recently to tackle Tampa Bay's technology skills gap. The goal is to connect industry with the schools, community colleges and universities here to better align student skills with real-world demand. We'll hear more on that project later this summer.

There are pockets of cool.

In downtown St. Petersburg, chamber of commerce chief Chris Steinocher says he's not hearing complaints from his business members about a lack of cool. Quite the opposite.

"We have such a personality now in St. Pete that some businesses tell us they are opening here to attract workers," he says. Businesses entice prospective hires with a trip to bustling Beach Drive along the city's downtown waterfront.

Seeing is believing, Steinocher insists. "If you can't get them here and if they're still stuck on the old brand of St. Petersburg, people will have no idea what we are up to. Getting people to see how cool we are is key."

Trying to be cool is every metro area's quest. It's a hot topic in Michigan trying to rebound from dark economic days, where people caution that building more night clubs and coffee bars won't work without meaningful jobs. It's discussed in places like Augusta, Ga., where it's joked that everyone should wear baseball caps backward.

It's big in Nashville. This month, city leaders there are trying to figure out the same issue befuddling us here: how to get more tech workers to fill thousands of jobs that can't be filled and, as a result, dragging down an already slow economy.

Urban economist Richard Florida ignited a fire in area leaders nine years ago when he challenged them to deepen the metro's culture and broaden its tolerance. Those are two ingredients that his influential book, The Rise of the Creative Class, said would draw more talented people and, in turn, better jobs.

The economist's push prompted numerous positive efforts in this area. It helped start Creative Tampa Bay. It influenced the rise of Emerge Tampa (the business leadership group for people ages 21 to 35). And it encouraged people like St. Petersburg's Peter Kageyama, author of the cool-embracing book For the Love of Cities and a co-founder of Awesome Tampa Bay, which helps fund grass roots projects to improve the metro area in some fresh way.

With the Republican National Convention quickly approaching, area business and political leaders are scrambling to package the best of Tampa Bay — in videos and conferences, in advertising and marketing, on new websites (like tampabayshines.com) and in talk shows to be streamed live over the Internet during the RNC. The idea is to show a bigger world briefly focused on this area that we may be cooler than they thought and a good place to do business.

Will it work? Most of those pitches about Tampa Bay's rising coolness are not focused on a few hot buttons but rather cover the waterfront, from beaches to pro sports to universities to airports to tourism to health care and energy.

All of this helps. But there's a big difference between marketing campaigns and changing the perception of people (in and outside the bay area) of what makes a place cool.

Experts say changing impressions of how hip a place is can be difficult. A Forbes magazine analysis in 2010 cited Miami's sharp rise in its "cool city" rankings because of the burst of art galleries there and the 2002 introduction of Art Basel, the contemporary art festival that started in Switzerland.

By the way, both Miami and Orlando ranked in the top 10 of Forbes' coolest cities ranking in 2010.

I know the Tampa Bay area is cooler and getting more so. It has gotten tougher to see those gains during the recent economic downturn, amid job losses and housing woes. But they are there, waiting for more recognition when the economy strengthens.

"Coolness," Forbes stated, "is elusive and hard to define." It's not unlike that famous line from a U.S. Supreme Court justice on identifying pornography:

"I know it when I see it."

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

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