Economic Development – If You Build It Will They Will Come?
There was an interesting column in the Times last week about what drives our economy.
What would happen if “Tampa Bay” was trying to pitch itself as a compelling partner on Match.com? What would stand out? How could this place sell itself competitively when compared to the better-known and presumably more exciting Orlando, the tourism king, or Miami, the unofficial northern capital of Latin America?
This is the crux of a recent conversation I had with Ryan Severino, senior economist and research director of Reis, a 35-year provider of commercial real estate information and analysis that monitors office vacancy trends across the country.
Tampa Bay’s office vacancy rate stood at 20.5 percent in this year’s second quarter, ranking this metro area 66th among 79 U.S. metro markets. The good news is that 20.5 percent is the lowest office vacancy rate Tampa Bay has enjoyed in at least the past five years. The bad news is Tampa Bay’s office vacancy rate has hovered in a narrow band, as high as 22.2 percent in mid 2013, and trails 65 other metro areas with lower office vacancy rates — including Miami and Orlando — with some as low as the single digits.
In other words, improvement but still lagging (a constant theme it seems).
I asked Severino: How does Tampa Bay boost demand for office space? The bay area needs a compelling story to tell, he says. It needs some pizzazz — just as Orlando gets from everyone knowing it for its popular theme parks or Miami enjoys as the Latin capital of the United States.
Nor does anyone else unless you go to the old standards: growing population and the housing and services that those people need (and low wage call center jobs. Sure, there are some companies around that really do something else and add value, but that is not the heart of the economy nor has it been the heart of economic planning. It seems that most economic planning has simply relied on the weather and the water and assumed we would be fine, while other areas were aggressively developing themselves. And this is not new.
Now this is a well-traveled discussion. Many Tampa Bay business leaders have tried valiantly over the years to find legitimate ways to break this metro area out of its Anonymity Zone. Here’s are some highlights in frustration:
In 2003, the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional marketing group, dabbled with the idea of extending the “I am Tampa Bay” brand (whatever that meant) as far north, south and east as possible to test its staying power. The publisher at the time of the Lakeland Ledger said “Tampa Bay” was an irrelevant term and held no sway to Lakeland locals, while Sarasota considered itself a separate city but at least more in tune with the greater Tampa Bay area on economic development matters.
In 2012, an informal group of business executives led by prominent Tampa lawyer Rhea Law met in brainstorming sessions to figure out what brand or message this metro area wanted to convey before and during the rare gathering of leaders here for the Republican National Convention. The group threw out plenty of ideas but essentially defaulted to a former branding campaign called “Tampa Bay Shines,” which portrayed the bay area as a broad buffet of positive images but lacking any singular focus.
In 2013, the Visit Tampa Bay tourism agency for Tampa and Hillsborough paid for extensive research to find a tourism brand that would help break through the broader perception of blandness surrounding Tampa Bay’s image. They ultimately picked “Unlock Tampa Bay: Treasure Awaits,” which is a clever marketing phrase but arguably fails the branding test because it does not tell potential visitor what that treasure actually is.
In 2014 and 2015, area business leaders on multiple occasions have met with outside experts to explore a regional branding focus. Can Tampa Bay become a hot defense brand thanks to U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base? What about an emerging technology hub brand, as the Tampa Bay Technology Forum hopes to fashion? These are experiments still under way and should be encouraged. But neither one seems able to sustain a broader Tampa Bay theme.
Yes, they should be encouraged, as should the Lightning owner’s quest to bring an HQ here. But the reality is that all those campaigns or attempts are over sold at their inception and have failed to really do the trick. They are sold as a panacea, and they just aren’t – there is no panacea. The fact that there are so many in such a short time (and the history of the County Center where the Commissioners work) is proof of that. As we have said – there is no quick fix. There is just a lot of work – and the need to actually fixing things like transportation, planning, and everything else we are always talking about.
I asked him if he knew of the efforts, unveiled seven months ago, by Tampa Bay Lightning owner and former stock market whiz kid Jeff Vinik to create a billion-dollar, 40-acre “work, live and play” district in the greater Channelside area south of downtown Tampa. High on Vinik’s to-do list is to recruit a notable corporate headquarters to help anchor a project that already will include a relocated University of South Florida medical school.
Sure it can help. Of course, having real economic drivers is what really brings people and value and fills office space. But relying on real estate is not going to do it.
Then, there was this:
Back to my conversation with REIS research chief Severino. He suggests Tampa Bay must land more significant companies —businesses with national and international name reputations — and the ripple effects from the higher salaries and job skills that accompany them before the metro area can achieve higher recognition.
A few metro areas have successfully broken through the bland barrier, so it is possible, he says, and gives two examples. Pittsburgh, once a mighty industrial town, chucked that 19th century image by refocusing its image and workforce around high-quality universities such as Carnegie Mellon and the health care industry. And Dallas, Severino says with admiration, has managed to become a major magnet for a wide spectrum of business by combining a pro-business image with low taxes, less regulation and a strong workforce.
Let’s look at that for a minute.
Pittsburgh was already an established city – even if it had a shrinking population. It had well funded institutions (and their very connected technology component), money (notice the Carnegie and Mellon), and people willing to really invest in building the area, its institutions, and its economy. Pittsburgh also had urban areas and real (if limited) transit.
Dallas has 1) oil money, 2) a good location, and 3) an airport that took advantage of that location. TV shows and football we free advertising for it. Dallas also invested in real transit as well as roads. It was not bashful. And it was bigger and better known than this area.
The real point is this: we do have drivers of our economy, but because of the decisions made by local officials (and some businesses), they are not the right ones. There is poor transportation infrastructure (and even the Go Hillsborough process promises to just leave us less behind other areas, not catch them). Our urban areas are limited at best. Sure, we have USF, but that is one institution and, for most of its history, it has lived in the shadow of other state schools. UT does not develop technology and is just coming into its own. The port missed the container revolution and is playing catch-up. The airport is great but it is still recovering from the previous administration and it is not a hub. And we do not speak as a region so other areas pass us by.
And look back to the item last week (and the very extensive comment) about technology investing. We have an issue.
So what are we? To be successful, we have to be more than just people who left cold weather. The sun and sea are nice, but other areas have that, too. And the article’s examples show that sea and sun are not even that important to developing the economy (neither Dallas nor Pittsburgh have them). And while they are all useful and part of the economy, we need to stop focusing on playing fields, movies, retail establishments, tourism, sprawling housing, and settling and put much more focus on the real prize and the things we actually need to do to get there.
Transportation – The Sierra Club Speaks
Speaking of a main factor in moving the economy – transportation – there was news that the Sierra Club has voiced an opinion on the Go Hillsborough process:
“Critically needed reforms require no referendum,” the statement said. “The Sierra Club of Tampa Bay urges the Hillsborough County Commission to change development policy, increase development fees and adopt the local-option gas tax before pursuing a sales tax increase.”
Skipping over the gas tax thing, everything else there is in line with our previous discussions. (And at first blush, even the gas tax makes some sense, though, in our opinion, there is no way the County Commission will go there unless it is a tax on Uber’s gas.) So what is the reasoning? Form the original version of the article which was later changed on the Times website, which does not appear to be available any longer:
“It’s unclear to me, at this point, exactly what the public transit component of this is going to be,” Tampa Bay Sierra Club Chairman Kent Bailey said. “We are not going to support or oppose this referendum until we know exactly what it is.”
Before the county moves forward with any sort of sales tax — whether it’s one the Sierra Club supports or not — Bailey and other members are encouraging leaders to first adopt a five-cent gas tax to fund road maintenance and require developers to pay a higher share of impact fees.
“We consider these items to be elements that would be present in a good faith effort to really meet the transportation needs of Hillsborough County,” Bailey said. “When you’re in a deep, deep hole the first thing you do is put down the shovel. If we don’t bring impact fees and development fees in line with the cost of developing infrastructure, we’re still getting deeper into the hole.”
Once again, we are not sure about the gax tax thing (though it will go nowhere anyway) but before you ask for money, do what you can easily do (and should already have done). Fix what is easily fixable. Show you have really changed.
Also notable, though not surprising at all, there is tea party opposition.
Transportation – Behind the Express Lanes
There has been a lot of coverage of variable rate express lanes/Lexus lanes/premium lanes (that’s a nice one – like it is a business, not the government) since Tampa Heights started complaining about them. This week, the Tribune had an article looking at the Miami experience. First, the normal spiel:
Adding premium toll lanes alongside regular interstate traffic is an approach that already has reduced congestion on Interstate 95 in Miami, Florida Department of Transportation officials say, and they predict it will do the same at notorious bottlenecks on I-275 and I-4.
Average rush-hour travel speeds on I-95 have indeed improved, but the results aren’t all good: The speed of cars on northbound express lanes has repeatedly failed to meet state targets and accidents on toll lanes have led to gridlock on the freeway.
Transportation officials say all I-95 drivers have benefitted. State reports show the average northbound speed on regular roads during peak periods has risen from 18 to 35 mph since the lanes were introduced. Southbound drivers do even better, averaging 45 mph.
So that is all well and good, but there really interesting thing is in the details:
As we keep saying, if you create a limited number of lanes and limit the number of cars in those lanes, additional traffic will be dumped into the regular lanes. As traffic grows the regular lanes will be slower. Moreover, eventually land for the variable rate lanes will run out and there will be no more lanes so the regular lanes will get much busier.
That is no long term solution, especially when there is no real transit – no real alternative to roads and limited urban, walkable, transit oriented development at best. (And adding buses to express lanes just means fewer cars can use them, so that is no solution).
Thurman also questions why the transportation department is planning to expand I-275 and I-4 when there is no plan to integrate mass transit into the area’s overall transportation network, as has happened in other cities where tolls have been added or are planned.
South Florida has Tri-Rail, a rail passenger service between West Palm Beach and Miami that runs parallel to I-95. Miami-Dade is also served by Metrorail, an elevated train network with 23 stations over a 24-mile rail network.
Indeed – those rail systems get hundreds of millions of state dollars.
Though we think the roads need to be widened, we are not fans of FDOT’s approach. But they are not the only ones to blame for all this. As we have also said, as much as we are not in favor of FDOT’s approach, part of the problem – a big part of the problem – is that locally we have not pushed for a real transit system and proper planning. And Go Hillsborough does not really address that.
There is a lot of blame to go around.
Downtown/Channel District/Built Environment – More of What the Expert Said
There were more reports on what the Lightning owner’s urban planner had to say. We highlight this:
“If all goes as planned, in 10 years this will be completely transformed,” Speck told News Channel 8. Signs of change will happen even sooner, with the first phase set to be completed in five or six years, he said.
Speck’s vision for the area includes making the city more walkable based on the premise that it has to be “simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable and interesting,” he said. “If it’s not all four of those things, people won’t walk.”
Speck’s prescription for achieving that includes adding parallel parking along the road to make walkers feel more protected than they do now. “When a car passes you on the sidewalk, you lack that barrier of steel that makes you feel safe and actually protects you from vehicles coming at you,” he said.
Speck also said plans call for creating “continuous deep shade” in the Florida heat. “Every building will likely have either an awning or arcade or something that shadows the sidewalk,” he said. Plans for the area involve adding retail and other destinations to the mix, but Speck said the biggest difference in the future may be “the number of people on the sidewalks.”
We are all for all of that. The only thing we would add is that, aside from planning, Florida has TWO main issues for walkability – heat (which he addresses) and rain. It is fine to have shade, but there has to be shelter from the rain. If you have awnings, they should be continuous, not the broken up kind just in front of stores found in so many strip malls. People will not walk if they are going to get soaked either from sweat or a downpour.
Oddly, buildings from previous eras handled this much better than most modern buildings. The sidewalks around Park Tower or the old Exchange bank are completely covered by the parking garages, giving shelter from the sun and the rain. While their designs are not the most elegant, at least it covers pedestrians. The challenge is to do it in better, more attractive way.
We look forward to seeing the solution.
Downtown/West Side/Hyde Park – Settling Isn’t So Nice When It Is Next Door
It seems that first proposed development around the west bank of the river downtown has drawn some interest from its neighbors:
“What Grand Central is and can be is a really great shopping and retail district,” said Blake Casper, proprietor of Oxford Exchange. “That’s what it originally was, and I think it very well could be that and more.”
Casper and his sister Allison Adams opened Oxford Exchange in 2012, renovating a century-old building into a mixed-use concept that includes a book store, gift boutique, restaurant, coffee and tea bar and a coworking space. The current zoning of the site Altman is targeting is commercial, office and parking.
We agree with his sentiment, but there is an issue with what he said. He’s right – he spent a lot of money fixing up the building (and did a good job). However, there is basically nothing in Tampa’s rules that require anything to be nice, urban, useful, contributing to the neighborhood, etc. His investment has no protections. Developers can comply with zoning and be completely bland and generic. That is the Tampa way.
Except for in a very limited number of areas, the city has absolutely no requirements to make anything nice around you – and it has a habit of ignoring those requirements. If you don’t like it, demand a change.
Westshore/Built Environment – Missed Opportunities
There is an interesting Facebook page for a group called URBN Tampa Bay. It focuses mostly on the built environment and has some good information and comments. This week posted something about a Framework project in Westshore that actually is on Spruce.
They comment “We would’ve liked to of seen mixed-use here but this is good density overall.” We agree on both points.
The photo led us to find the location of this particular project, which is here. If you look at Spruce on the linked map, there are a number of multistory apartment projects that actually are built basically to the sidewalk. (And there are a number more being built now.) It is perfectly set up to have normal, urban, walkable residential retail businesses lining the street. However, there are none. In fact, as you can see from the map, Spruce is even cut-off from the wide “Boy Scout/Spruce” road and some of the complexes – though it is not clear why. There is no good way to walk to any real retail. And there is nothing on Lois but parking lots – a legacy of poor planning.
So even if you live in that pretty good cluster of apartment housing, you are still nowhere without getting in your car. That is settling in action and why Westshore is likely a long way from being actually walkable, rhetoric notwithstanding.
Transportation – Whither Tampa Bay Exceptionalism?
There was news about the Tampa bike share program this week:
“Ultimately, we’re working to build our system to encompass the entire bay area,” he said. That includes not only commuters, but also college students on campus and the bay area’s 14.9 million annual visitors.
Meanwhile, the 10,000th member of the program checked out one of the rental bikes at 4:16 p.m. on the Fourth of July. Considering that the program had 6,500 members at the five-month mark, Trull said usage numbers are encouraging.
That is cool, though, we do have to note that the “membership” thing seems slightly misleading unless you know the exact meaning:
Visitors tend to ride farther, about 3 miles on average, while annual members average 2 miles per ride, which supports the idea that tourists use the bikes for leisure and locals ride to run errands or shop.
In any event, what this says is that there is a latent market for such things in the bay area that was long ignored, just like there was a latent market for urban apartments that for years we were told was not actually there. The fact is that there are many latent markets in the bay area that are just not supplied – like real transit and real walkability. But those markets are latent because of settling – they are waiting to be served. We do not have to be behind. All it takes is caring about it and the political will to see it through.
TIA – One of the Best, Of Course
We are exceptional in one area – the airport, which was noted again this week.
Airports were ranked among the “World’s Best” from November to March on location and access; check-in and security; restaurants and food; shopping and design; with optional feedback about business and family amenities.
Tampa International’s composite score was just behind that of No. 1 Portland International Airport, which was awarded the top domestic spot for the third year in a row. Local Oregon TV news reports credit the Portland airport’s emphasis on local restaurants and themes, and even its bicycle repair shop on the premises.
The airport which has been innovative since its initial design is the one area where we are consistently there with the usual suspects (if not ahead of them). It is always a reminder of what we can do if we actually focus, plan, and are willing to invest in doing something right instead of settling.
Charter Review Board – Same Old DNA
It turns out that the Commission appointed Charter Review Board in Hillsborough County was considering a proposal to change the structure of the Commission.
The lopsided 11-3 vote once again dashed the hopes many Hispanic voters harbored of creating a district where one of their own could be elected to the commission. The defeated motion, made by Evelio Otero, would have added one single-member district for a total of five and one at-large seat to the current three.
If the charter board had passed the motion, the matter would have gone to voters on the November 2016 ballot. Now, Hispanics’ only chance of getting a so-called “minority access” district is if the county commission itself votes to put a redistricting charter amendment on the ballot.
The chances of that are slim. In November 2013, four of the five Republicans on the commission voted against a ballot measure to add an additional single-member district with a Hispanic population of 35 percent or more. Republicans still hold a 5-2 majority on the commission.
We are not going to get into all that. But there was this:
Jan Platt, a former county commissioner who helped draft the county’s charter, said there have been numerous Hispanics who served on the commission without the aid of a specially configured district. Some of the former commissioners Platt mentioned, such as Nick Nuccio and Ray Campo, have Italian names, but are considered “Latins” in Tampa’s Spanish, Cuban and Italian melting pot.
Which made us think about numbers. The single member districts are about half the size in population of US Congressional district. The county-wide are about twice the size of a congressional district. And, frankly, people who want real transit, good planning, proper economic development, and no more subsidies to sprawl developers have been underrepresented for years.
Maybe if they had small districts, they would not have to hire consultants to find out what the people wanted. For instance, let’s look at Go Hillsborough which used “outside” consultants (as well as some locally connected people they hired) for $900,000. Here and here. So what did the Commission get for handing that taxpayer money to a few people? Per the report:
So say roughly 26,000 people responded. That is a little more than $34 per opinion (assuming they all gave opinions, which is not really a strong assumption given the telephone town halls would never allow 24,000 opinions.) The County could have gotten the same results by paying 26000 local taxpayers $34 each to fill out a survey.
Of course, just adding two seats to the Commission would not fix that, but the failure of the idea to get anywhere shows just how entrenched the system really is. The fact remains that having such large districts are not very representative. Leaving it the way it is will not serve the County better.
Transportation – Exhibit A in distance for Constituents: the PTC
Speaking of being out of touch, there was more on the PTC and ridesharing.
After all, the company has frustrated government agencies and taxi companies worldwide as its drivers transport passengers without the regulatory requirements of traditional chauffeured transportation services.
Yes, they will be back because they have money and a product people want. The issue there, as here, is the government getting in the way and protecting vested interests.
Sure, because the PTC’s way (which is not representative of all the people using ridesharing, like these folks) is protectionist, anti-capitalist, anticompetitive, and stifling of innovation. In any event, that will not change. Local officials, here and in many other locations, are much more comfortable protecting the ways of the past that working to move into the future. Just see the first item.
Rays – Tell Us Something We Don’t Know
There was another article in the Tribune regarding the Rays, this time focusing on stadiums being part of entertainment districts.
With the era of standalone, isolated stadiums largely over, sports team owners increasingly are taking on the role of developer and using their stadiums as anchors for entertainment districts or retail and residential developments.
Tampa already has one sports franchise that scrutinizes nearby property deals as closely as Draft Day prospects. Strategic Property Partners, the real estate arm of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his business empire, is moving ahead with $1 billion in development around Amalie Arena.
Another such project the Rays likely are watching closely is SunTrust Park, a ballpark and entertainment district in Cobb County, Georgia, now under development by the Atlanta Braves that will include up to 1 million square feet of retail, residential and hotel space.
Building a ballpark with surrounding development is thought to be a first for Major League Baseball and is a model that local leaders expect the Rays may follow if they build a ballpark in the Tampa Bay area.
“We are certainly studying the Atlanta model, particularly with respect to creating an entertainment district,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, a cheerleader for moving the Rays to Tampa. “We’re thinking of a stadium that goes far beyond the traditional model of a ballpark. It will need to be part of a larger entertainment venue that appeals to everyone and is really going to be the place to be.”
Ok, we knew that. And it should not just be a purpose built “entertainment district;” it should be in an area where development can occur around it. The article then gives a number of examples and goes back to Tropicana Field.
That would keep in play some of the sites touted as potential locations for a ballpark, such as Derby Lane on Gandy Boulevard, Toytown in Pinellas County and Tampa Park Apartments between Channelside Bay Plaza and Ybor City. But it would rule out the ConAgra Foods flour plant on Finley Street, Hagan said.
In St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman is still touting the 85-acre Tropicana Field site as offering the best development potential, although it’s unclear how the city might partner with the Rays to redevelop publicly owned land.
“Downtown is booming, and new businesses and restaurants are opening along the Central Avenue corridor all the time,” Kriseman said. “The possibilities around the current Tropicana Field site are nearly endless.”
Derby Lane is not accessible, nor can it really be made into a district. And one of the main reasons the Braves want to move is to get closer to their fan base, which the Rays would not be doing if the stayed in downtown St. Pete (and probably why St. Pete has created so many road blocks in the process).
There really is not much more to say until St. Pete lets the Rays look in the whole area, which probably won’t happen as long as you have this silliness going on in the City Council.
Trouble is, ULI says it doesn’t really do that kind of work. The organization, which assembles teams of out-of-town experts to offer fresh-eyed, wide-pan ideas for specific challenges and issues has offered proposals to transform downtown Clearwater and St. Petersburg’s waterfront. But a panel of experts usually spends about a week on an issue, which isn’t enough time to deliver the data that Kennedy wants. And the group says it’s reluctant to wade into a political fight.
Why even propose that?
“In my mind, it’s a way to get the Rays to evaluate the Trop without evaluating other areas,” Kennedy said. He voted against Mayor Rick Kriseman’s proposed deal with the team last year that would have allowed the Rays to look at possible sites in Hillsborough County.
Yea, that isn’t completely transparent and guaranteed to fail. Someday this process will end. Unfortunately, St. Pete City Council acts like it wants that end to be when the Rays leave the area.
International Trade – Enter Miami
For those who thought that Miami will not dominate any opening to Cuba, here’s some news:
Starting in May, Carnival Corp. plans to offer trips from Miami to the Caribbean island nation, the company announced Tuesday. Carnival says it would become the first American cruise company to visit Cuba since the 1960 trade embargo. The trips will be through its new brand, fathom, which focuses on trips where passengers sail to a destination in order to volunteer there.
“This is an important first step for our company and the cruise industry,” CEO Arnold Donald told The Associated Press in an email. “It begins our efforts to shape a long sustained industry experience in Cuba.”
The weeklong cruises will be aboard the Adonia, which carries 710 passengers. The ship is relatively small for the industry; ships sailing under the company’s namesake line carry nearly 3,000 passengers.
Carnival is expecting high demand for the voyages and has priced them accordingly. Prices start at $2,990 per person plus taxes and port fees. A similar service-oriented trip on the same ship to the Dominican Republic starts at $1,540 per person.
And the reaction in Tampa:
“Today’s news bodes well for future opportunities for Port Tampa Bay, which is well positioned as one of the closest cruise ports to Havana, to one day serve this new cruise destination,” the statement said. “Port Tampa Bay has the facilities and key partnerships in place for the cruise and ferry business to grow and thrive and is ‘Cuba-ready.’ ”
As much as some in Miami will complain about Cuba, the moment there is any opening (like flights), the Miami area jumps through it and takes it over. Anyone who thinks otherwise and thinks Tampa can just sit back and have all this Cuba trade and business will fall into our laps is kidding themselves (though it would not be the first time Tampa did that).
It serves no purpose (at least not for the area) to not promote this area in all Cuba trade openings. It will not stop the openings. All it does is cede the business to others.
List of the Week
Our list this week is Wallethub’s best cities for recreation.
The top 10 was thus: Cincinnati, Omaha, Scottsdale, Tampa, Boise, Orlando, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Reno, and Denver.
So we made the top 10, which is great.
As this list was covered in the Times, we’ll tell you what they said:
In securing fourth place overall, Tampa was buoyed by its rank for entertainment and recreational facilities (9th) and climate (13th); which offset its slightly lower status in costs (28th) and quality of parks (45th).
What the Times did not tell you is that the climate rank, which is one of the things that brought us way up was basically a means of just padding the numbers. For instance, Tampa’s climate was ranked 13th, while St. Pete’s was 40th. Orlando’s was 28th. San Diego’s, which basically no one complains about ever, was 34th. In other words, that is completely meaningless.
Then there was the “entertainment and recreational facilities” which just counted numbers per 100,000 – where we did well. On the other hand, in terms of quality of facilities, we were quite poor.
So celebrate the 4th place ranking (it is nice to get in the top 10 for something), then realize it is BS and move on.