Editorial: A road map for Tampa Bay

LUIS SANTANA   |   Times A Tampa Bay Partnership report details the strengths and weaknesses of the region.
LUIS SANTANA | Times A Tampa Bay Partnership report details the strengths and weaknesses of the region.
Published Dec. 17, 2018

A new snapshot shows the strengths and weaknesses of the Tampa Bay area, providing political, civic and business leaders a road map for making the region more attractive and competitive. The bay area has incredible assets to promote, from MacDill Air Force Base and the University of South Florida to commercial airports on both sides of the bay. But it will take smart choices to move the region's mixed record of success to a higher level. It's a reminder of the need for regional unity and for building on the key investments Hillsborough County is making in education and transportation.

The Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional business and policy advocacy group, released its second annual Regional Competitiveness Report on Wednesday. The study compares the Tampa Bay region with 19 similar-sized communities, focusing on dozens of indicators across five key areas, from the economy and innovation to the local talent pool, that measure a community's quality of life. The goal is to create a deep and rich understanding of Tampa Bay's appeal and potential, and to guide policymakers and business leaders as they position the region to compete and grow.

The study found Tampa Bay scored high in net migration, growth in home prices and new business starts compared to metropolitan areas such as Dallas-Ft. Worth, Charlotte, Baltimore and others - a reflection of business and consumer confidence, and the attraction of Tampa Bay for residential relocation. The region's air quality, low crime rate and growth in airline traffic all speak to the amenities that new residents and businesses alike look for as key measures of a community.

The region continues to struggle in attracting high-paying jobs and in providing affordable housing and mass transportation. The average wage in the bay area ($46,619) was below the U.S. average ($55,338), ranking next to last among comparison communities. Tampa Bay ranked last in median household income, per capita gross regional product and the growth of advanced industries. That reflects broader weaknesses in the area's talent pool, stemming from lagging high school graduation rates and relatively low numbers of residents with college degrees. The depressing effect an under-trained workforce has on wages, combined with the lack of mass transit in the area, left Tampa Bay ranked near the bottom in affordability, as residents spent more than half of their incomes on housing and transportation.

The Partnership's report is an impressive effort to dig deep to paint an honest picture of the region. It has brought business, civic and political leaders across the bay area to focus on concrete measures of where the region is going. While the bay area scored comparatively low on transportation and education, for example, the decision by Hillsborough voters in November to tax themselves for long-term transportation and school improvements will help move those needles in the right direction. The Hillsborough County School District has gone a step further by expanding its early childhood education program. And the ongoing selection process for a new president at USF offers the opportunity to bring the university's mission more in line with the broader vision for the community.

The Partnership study, and a complementary report issued this week by the USF Muma College of Business, will help inform political and business leaders how to best shape the region's future. Then it's a matter of working cooperatively to strengthen the underpinnings of Tampa Bay.