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What the Economist’s special report on Florida means to St. Pete

Mark Parker

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The special report's author mentioned the preponderance of large companies relocating to Florida from states like New York. Several notable fintech firms have recently moved to St. Petersburg. Photos by Mark Parker.

The Economist recently released a sprawling, in-depth look into how Florida transformed from a swamp-infested national afterthought to a major player in American social, economic and political discourse.

Titled “The Sunshine State also rises,” the London-based, nearly 180-year-old weekly publication released the 10-page special report April 2. The author, Alexandra Suich Bass, peppered in mentions of Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg and its leaders throughout the report’s eight articles.

“Florida is booming and becoming more important, with big consequences for America,” wrote Bass in the opening.

Bass referenced how Finding Florida author T.D. Allman called Florida “the Play-Doh State” in her opening salvo, with its residents “repeatedly taking the goo and molding it to fit their dreams.” She noted that between 2010 and 2020, Florida’s population grew by 15% – twice the national average. With 22 million people and hundreds more relocating to the Sunshine State every day, Florida now sits behind just California and Texas as the most populated states in the country.

According to the report, Florida overtook California six years ago as the top destination for foreigners moving to America. It also leads the nation in domestic migration. Bass noted more young professionals, families with flexible jobs and financial firms from New York are migrating to the state.

Many are relocating to St. Petersburg.

Dynasty Financial Partners took its operations and $40 billion in assets from Manhattan to St. Petersburg in 2019. As reported by the Catalyst, Shirl Penney, co-founder of Dynasty, said that with local financial behemoth Raymond James, “St. Pete has the two top asset-flowing wealth management firms in America.”

“So, today is the day we declare ourselves the center of that (financial services) gravity,” Chris Steinocher, CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said at the time.

Others soon followed Dynasty’s path to St. Pete. CrossBorder Solutions, a fintech firm worth over $1 billion, relocated from New York a year later.

“We knew that more and more companies were coming here, with it being a technology hub,” Don Scherer, co-founder of CrossBorder Solutions, told the Catalyst after the move. “ … St. Pete, the Tampa Bay area, is where a lot of software companies seem to be heading – especially from the Midwest and the West Coast.”

Cathie Wood and her ARK Investment firm were the latest fintech powerhouse to make the move from the Big Apple to the Sunshine City. The official relocation became effective last Nov. 1, and a collaboration with the Tampa Bay Innovation Center to construct a new STEM incubator was immediately launched.

“We are thrilled to relocate our corporate headquarters to St. Petersburg, Florida, as we believe the Tampa Bay region’s talent, innovative spirit and quality of life will accelerate our growth initiatives,” said Wood, ARK’s founder and CEO, in the company’s announcement.

Joe Hamilton, head of network for Metacity and publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, was featured in the special report – albeit briefly. He explained that the pandemic forced companies to try new ways of working, and many discovered the upside of operating virtually. He said the shift to virtual operations also changed the incentive structure for employees, and geography – specifically the proximity to the office or districts like Wall Street – lost value.

“Quality of life and cost of living, which includes taxes, gained value,” he said. “Florida is winning an influx of new talent because it delivers more value in this new paradigm.”

St. Pete Beach at dusk. A high quality of life and relatively low cost of living is a major attraction for companies, families and individuals.

Many people around the world and country echo those same sentiments. According to the Economist, one-fifth of Florida’s population is born outside of America, earning it the “southern Ellis Island” moniker. Bass wrote that around 39% of Floridians are from another state, compared to just 16% of Californians and 22% of Texans.

Palm Harbor resident and Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls is a University of South Florida and Stetson University graduate whose district encompasses northern Pinellas County. He told the Economist that the influx of immigration validates Florida’s legislative policies. He said Florida was once a “carrot at the end of the life well-lived, but that’s not true anymore.”

“We’re a blueprint for the country,” he said.

Bass then relayed a quote by Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist in Tallahassee, stating that “Florida is not really a state” due to many residents lacking commonly shared experiences. He argued that new Floridians also bring their biases, voting records and cultural affinities from elsewhere.

Bass described Central Florida as “where the old state meets the new.” She noted the west coast features “buzzing cities like St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota,” which are younger and more affordable than places like Naples. The author also wrote that Floridians understood fantasy could boost the state’s allure – long before Walt Disney transformed swampland into a “magic kingdom.”

Bass used St. Augustine’s fabled fountain of youth and Gasparilla as examples. While she wrote how the 118-year-old pirate-themed festival attracts over 300,000 people to the downtown Tampa waterfront each year, she noted that Jose Gaspar, its namesake, “seems not to have existed.”

Fantasy or otherwise, the numbers back the allure. Bass noted from July 2020 to June 2021, 220,000 more Americans arrived in Florida than left – a 30% increase over the previous six years.

“Adding in foreign immigrants, Florida took in a net 260,000 migrants in 2020-21, equivalent to adding a city the size of Orlando,” wrote Bass.

The author explained that Florida now influences the entire country, both economically and politically. Following the 2020 census, the state picked up another congressional seat and electoral vote. Florida is now America’s largest swing state, owning more than a tenth of the 270 electoral votes needed to secure the presidency.

Throughout the extensive special report, Bass further extrapolated on Florida’s public policies, rising home prices, soaring property insurance rates, Miami’s burgeoning tech scene and how the environment is the state’s main attraction – but also its biggest vulnerability.

“An animating theme is Florida’s fragility, but also its rise and growing importance,” wrote Bass. “What happens if Florida, in short, reverberates around the country.”

 

 

 

 

 

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