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Researchers release, discuss regional competitiveness report

Brian Hartz

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Moez Limayem, left, and Rick Homans presented the Regional Competitiveness Report during a virtual State of the Region event on Jan. 15.

On Friday, the Tampa Bay Partnership held its fifth annual State of the Region event, an occasion that coincides with the release of a 68-page Regional Competitiveness Report compiled from data gathered by the partnership, Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, United Way Suncoast and the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business.

The report measures Tampa Bay against 19 comparable U.S. metro areas, from Baltimore in the east to Seattle in the west. It takes a look at how each region performs in 60 indicators in five categories: economic vitality, innovation, infrastructure, talent and civic quality.

The event was held virtually for the first time ever, with host Moez Limayem, dean of the USF Muma College of Business, kicking it off with humorous remarks about pants being optional for attendees. “Things look a little bit different this year,” he deadpanned.

The rest of the presentation was not so cheerful. Tampa Bay Partnership President and CEO Rick Homans, in his opening remarks, said the coronavirus pandemic has deterred Tampa Bay’s rise to prominence. 

“Last January, our region was firing on all cylinders,” he said. “People, businesses and investments were flocking to Tampa Bay. To be fair, our research did show us some areas of concern, but it really felt like momentum was our side. Then, this devastating public health and economic crisis changed everything.” 

The key takeaway was that Tampa Bay, while continuing to show strength in areas like net migration and business start rate, stood still or even fell behind in other areas, such as educational attainment, average wages earned per year, labor force participation, poverty and gross regional product per capita. 

“This report contains some clear warning signs for the regional economy,” Homans said in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “We all love Tampa Bay, but we sometimes live in a bubble of false optimism. This data gives us an unvarnished and unfiltered view of what’s really happening in our community, and points to some serious issues that need to be addressed on a regional scale, with a common language and shared strategies. Our leaders need to take note and respond as one.”

Dave Sobush, the partnership’s director of policy and research, provided some sobering details. In February 2020, the region’s unemployment rate hovered around 3 percent; by April, it had shot up to 13.5 percent — “the highest rate on record,” he said. “And to date, more than half a million Tampa Bay residents have filed claims for unemployment assistance. Most of those folks are from lower-wage jobs requiring a lot of personal contact.” 

Sobush, however, said there are reasons for cautious optimism about the economy. The residential real estate market, after an initial pause in the early days of the pandemic, continued to strengthen in 2020, with Tampa Bay rising from No. 8 to No. 4 in terms of existing home sales price growth rate. And, Sobush added, there has been a slowdown in unemployment claims “supported by rising employment … we have seen 310,000 residents return to work since April.”

Tampa Bay, Sobush added, defied predictions that it would suffer mightily in terms of job losses. “We ranked as the seventh-most at risk in 20 markets,” he said, “but our experience was not as bad as many of the comparison communities.”  

Somewhat surprisingly, even with schools closed and many people working remotely, Tampa Bay’s average commute time got worse instead of better, dropping from No. 9 to No. 11 in the rankings. Tampa Bay continued to rank dead last in transit ridership per capita and transit vehicle revenue miles per capita.

Education is another area where the region can improve. The number of people ages 16-24 who are not in school or employed increased to 12.36 percent, dropping Tampa Bay’s ranking in that indicator from 17th to 18th. The number of residents obtaining secondary certificates and degrees also dropped, as did the graduation rate of economically disadvantaged high school students. As well, the region ranked 18th in terms of digital access. 

The Tampa Bay Partnership made clear that because of the timing of its release, the Regional Competitiveness Report does not fully capture the full impact of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. To help fill in the gaps with real-time data, researchers at the Center for Analytics and Creativity at the USF Muma College of Business have created the Tampa Bay E-Insights Report as a companion piece to the Regional Competitiveness Report. 

“Most economic conclusions are based on data drawn from a year — or even a decade — ago, and if the pandemic and economic crises have shown us anything, it’s how quickly markets and consumer behavior can change and that fresh data, along with historic data, must drive decisions,” Limayem stated in a news release. He also called for the formation of more public-private partnerships that use such real-time data “to accurately measure the health and prosperity of the vulnerable population — if we want to have a better real-time handle on policy issues to promote inclusive growth.” 

Analysis of the various data, Limayem said, points to transit availability, STEM education and increasing the median household income as keys to getting Tampa Bay moving in the right direction in many areas where it lags comparable metro areas.

“These three things, more than anything else,” Limayem said, “are the drivers that will improve the region’s gross regional product and prosperity.”

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