From Tuesday's key election choices to signs of critical mass in downtown Tampa, here are 10 hot topics to watch in Tampa Bay's quest to advance its regional economy.
1. Tuesday's election. Above all else, get out and vote. Plenty of folks feel like they have to hold their nose when choosing between Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist. Months of nonstop ads — many of them flagrantly misleading — only served to further sour an electorate that asks: If the unemployment rate is so much lower than it was four years ago, why do Floridians still feel so anxious about their economic prospects?
As the Wall Street Journal reported this past week, despite rising consumer confidence, both Republican and Democratic governors are struggling to get re-elected in Florida and several other states. "Our story looks at how the economy is stoking voter anger toward incumbents," the Journal wrote. It quotes Tampa resident and ad salesman Glenn Ireland, who lost his house to ballooning debt: "I feel pretty disconnected from the so-called recovery, and I don't believe either side of the aisle has a solution."
Forget that apathy. If you have yet to vote, get off your duff and pick somebody. Besides, there are other issues aside from picking the next governor to be decided on Tuesday's ballot.
2. Tampa Bay's trailing job growth. For all the upbeat business backslapping here, it turns out this metro area's job growth in the past year is slower than that of other big metro areas in Florida. New Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area added just 15,600 employees in the past year (September 2013 to September 2014) for a mere 1.3 percent increase. Compare that to Orlando (39,900 employees added, up 3.7 percent), Miami (69,200 employees, up 2.9 percent) or even smaller Jacksonville (19,900 employees, up 3.3 percent). Statewide, Florida added 210,500 employees, up 2.8 percent.
How do we get back into the fast lane in 2015?
3. "Bigger than baseball" in downtown Tampa? If the University of South Florida follows through on its endorsement to move USF's Morsani College of Medicine to downtown Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn's already famous remark — "This decision is the single most important that has occurred in the last 25 years. This is bigger than baseball." — will prove right on the mark. Couple that kind of USF firepower with Jeff Vinik's Channelside makeover and we might finally be seeing the kind of critical mass of higher-end assets needed to help make Tampa's downtown a residential and working mecca.
And what of baseball in downtown Tampa? There's no crying in baseball. But there are better geographic sites for a new Rays stadium. And they do not include Montreal.
4. A move to solidify St. Petersburg's artsy image. Some major media attention has landed on the arts scene in St. Petersburg. The Boston Globe on Oct. 25 featured a thumbs-up article about the city that cited a Condé Nast Traveler website, which listed St. Petersburg as the fourth-most-underrated city in America. That nod, the Globe says, "is the latest in a string of big ol' bear hugs that posh travel tastemakers have heaped on St. Petersburg this year." The Boston paper even cited an article about St. Petersburg appearing earlier this year in London newspaper the Independent: "Miami has a rival for the finer things."
That's a stretch. But, hey, it's publicity even as funding for the arts in St. Petersburg was cut in the recent recession. Amid complaints, St. Petersburg's City Council recently agreed to boost it in a 4-3 vote and provide $1 million over five years to the city arts community. Don't forget that St. Petersburg's still got two new museums — one for Arts and Crafts, and Tom James' American West collection — presumably committed to open downtown. Look out, Miami.
5. If it's tall in Tampa, buy it. It's hard to talk about downtown Tampa's future without noting the recent sales boom of its major office towers. This past week's $128 million purchase of the 38-story One Tampa City Center represents one of the largest commercial office transactions in Florida history.
But it's hardly the city's only downtown tower to go up for sale. The 22-story Wells Fargo Center at 100 S Ashley Drive is on the market. And Tampa's Fifth Third Center recently sold to an Atlanta buyer for $47 million. Other iconic properties could also be put up for sale to reflect the improving commercial office market and the belief, once again, that downtown Tampa will only get stronger.
6. Let's get this game started. Baseball season is over, and Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon are off to make their fortunes elsewhere. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman keeps hinting he will soon let the Tampa Bay Rays explore stadium options elsewhere, including Tampa. Reported hints that the Rays might consider relocating to Montreal, home of the former hapless Expos, seem thin. And MLB commissioner Bud Selig, finally, is retiring. Can we get some forward movement on a plan to keep the Rays here, somewhere, please?
7. Mass transit marathon. I have no great feel for whether the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit referendum will win voter approval on Tuesday. But if it fails, as its sister mass transit plan did in 2010 in Hillsborough County, Greenlight backers need to be ready to dust themselves off and push anew for better transportation options in Pinellas County. Win or lose, the next mass transit challenge will bounce over to Hillsborough with a push planned for 2016.
8. Scientology versus Winter the Dolphin. It is the biggest property owner in downtown Clearwater and has never been afraid to push it agenda. The Church of Scientology tells Pinellas commissioners that it opposes plans by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Clearwater marketing phenom Winter the dolphin, to relocate downtown. Downtown Clearwater just can't get a break.
9. Fixing U.S. 19. It's beginning to feel like the last time U.S. 19 in Pinellas was not under massive construction, the Ford Model T was in vogue. It will be a shock to see if any of the small businesses along the county's main artery can keep their doors open by the time the road is done.
10. Why graduates matter. Tampa Bay did not win, but finished strong, in a $1 million Talent Dividend Prize competition among 57 metro areas to boost their college graduation rates. Why does that matter? Paychecks. Nationally, full-time workers 25 or older without a high school diploma had median weekly earnings of $488, compared with $681 for high school graduates and $1,170 for those holding at least a bachelor's degree. Stay in school.
Contact Robert Trigaux at email@example.com or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.