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  1. Opinion

Column: Council of 100 study has some good news for us in Tampa Bay — but also challenges

Published May 28

As the Tampa Bay area continues to flourish, it may play an ever more significant role in shaping the future of the entire state of Florida.

Long viewed elsewhere as the "other" economic hub after tourist-rich Orlando and international South Florida, it turns out the Tampa Bay area has done an exceptional job of positioning itself for strength — even as Florida's other economic powerhouses flirt with trouble should something go wrong.

The bright picture for Tampa Bay is revealed in Project Sunrise, a detailed economic study by the Florida Council of 100. The report identifies areas of strength and vulnerability for Florida's economy, and it effectively charts a course for Florida to be a true global force for many years to come.

To do so, the state must overcome its historic reliance on tourism and growth-fueled construction. Those two sectors have been key to Florida's success, but just over a decade ago we learned how soft that success can be in the face of a recession — to say nothing of hurricanes.

While the economy in certain parts of the state has been even more robust since the recovery, they have done so largely on the basis of Florida's traditional economic drivers. But the Tampa Bay region, according to the Council of 100, has established a more diversified economy that can withstand a major storm, economic or natural. WalletHub just named Tampa the No. 5 best large city in America to start a business, and St. Petersburg No. 14.

The report recommends a greater concentration on "tradeable" sectors, which are areas of the economy that sell goods or services that can be easily exported. According to the Project Sunrise report, our communities should continue to see strong growth across such foundational sectors as health care, information technology, wholesale trade, professional services and company management.

Still, there is much to be done to establish a regional and state economy that can truly weather whatever comes. Despite strong population growth, Tampa's gross domestic product grew at just half the national rate, due to low and declining productivity. And the area needs to increase its number of college graduates, in order to have sufficient talent for the knowledge economy.

The Project Sunrise report offers specific recommendations to bolster the Bay area's economy, including:

• Leverage the existing university and college system to increase the output of high-caliber talent, working with the region's educational institutions to better align their degree programs with the current and future needs of the region's employers.

• Increase the labor force participation rate by creating career pathways for unemployed and under-employed residents.

• Create incentives to retain talented workers in the region.

There is more, and Project Sunrise is not intended to be one of those studies that sits on a shelf — it is a realistic assessment of Florida's, and the Tampa Bay area's, strengths and weaknesses. It shows that even regions like ours have much work ahead to prepare for a future that is closer than you might think. Community leaders and citizens should see the report and take steps now to prepare the Tampa Bay region for the brightest possible economic future.

Rhea Law is of counsel with the law firm of Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney. A member and former chair of the Florida Council of 100, the fifth-generation Floridian is passionate about the success of the state. Actively involved in public policy, civic, and charitable work, she holds leadership positions with numerous Florida-based organizations, including the Tampa Bay Partnership, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Stetson University College of Law and others.

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