2023 Regional Competitiveness Report shines a light on Tampa Bay's strengths and challenges

Tampa Bay is a red-hot area to move to. But its status as an in-demand migration destination is contributing to a crisis of affordability, particularly for residents who were already living here before the ongoing population boom.

That is one significant takeaway from the 2023 Regional Competitiveness Report, which compares Tampa Bay to 19 peer and aspirational metropolitan areas in 60 economic and quality-of-life measures. The Tampa Bay Regional Partnership puts out the report, now in its sixth year, in conjunction with United Way Suncoast and the Community Foundation Tampa Bay.

This year’s report ranks Tampa Bay first among peer metropolitan areas for both net migration and the growth in home sale prices, which increased by 26 percent. More than 54 cents of every dollar of income goes toward housing and transportation expenses, ranking Tampa Bay in the bottom three of peer communities on that measure of affordability.

During a February 10th presentation on the report at the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus, Tampa Bay Partnership President & CEO Bemetra Simmons says wages are not keeping pace with the cost of living. Public transit, pedestrian and cyclist safety, access to mental health services, school readiness and third-grade reading scores are other areas of concern highlighted in the report.

The region’s fatality rate for pedestrians and cyclists, 4.38 death per 100,000 residents, ranks second worst of the metropolitan areas included in the report. It is nearly twice the national average. The region’s rate of approximately 16 mental health provers per 10,000 residents is 17th among the peer communities and well below the national average of approximately 28. Less than half the region’s children are ready for kindergarten and just over half of the region’s third-graders pass the English Language Arts Florida Standards Assessment, commonly known as the third-grade reading test, with a score of 3 or higher.

On the positive side, the report shows year-to-year improvement on 36 of the 67 areas measured. On economic measures, Tampa Bay ranks fifth for starting new companies and its unemployment rate ranks fifth-lowest, decreasing from 3.5 percent to 2.7 percent. The percentage of full-time workers below the poverty rate has also declined. The gross regional product growth rate of “advanced industries” has increased to 16 percent and improved from seventh to fourth among peer regions.

During the event at USF, Simmons says the report is intended to give relevant data on the region’s strengths and areas for improvement.

“When we know our challenges, we can take steps to solve them,” she says.

Working for solutions

Across Tampa Bay, community organizations and local governments are working to address some of the same issues and challenges highlighted in the report. For example, the City of Tampa has built 21 miles of bicycle lanes, including 2.6 miles of separated, protected bike lanes, to improve cyclist safety in recent years. Organizations such as Tampa Bay Thrives are launching new initiatives and programs to improve access to mental health care. The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County is supporting a slew of programs and organizations that focus on early childhood development to prepare children for kindergarten and elementary school. 

Five years ago, the Children’s Board launched and funded the Quality Early Education System program in partnership with Hillsborough Community College to improve kindergarten readiness and early learning. Run by HCC, that program offers ongoing training, professional development and continuing education for early childhood teachers and caregivers.

Children’s Board of Hillsborough County Executive Director Kelley Parris says the organization  launched the program to fill a gap in the community for those training opportunities and has been “wildly successful.” 

Back in 2015, Community Foundation Tampa Bay and a network of more than 50 community partners launched the LEAP College Access Network to connect residents of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties with educational and training opportunities beyond high school. The goal is to have 60 percent of the working-age adults in the two counties with either a college degree or a high-quality workforce certificate by 2025.

While the LEAP program started before the Regional Competitiveness Report, it focuses on some of the same areas measured in the report, including the educational attainment rate - the percentage of the population holding an associate's, bachelor’s or graduate degree- and the percentage of the population age 16-24 that is not working or enrolled in school or workforce training.

Since the start of LEAP, the percentage of the work-age population across Pinellas and Hillsborough with a degree or a certificate has increased by approximately 5.5 percent to the range of 55 to 56 percent, says Community Foundation Tampa Bay Senior Director of Community Impact Chuck Tiernan, who also serves as director of the LEAP network.

In mid-2020, the LEAP network launched a Complete Tampa Bay initiative aimed at giving people support, coaching and guidance to complete college. One priority is helping people who have earned some college credits, including those in the 16 to 24 age group who are no longer enrolled, to go back to college and complete a degree.

Tiernan says Community Foundation Tampa Bay also launched college and career center programs in partnership with public high schools in Pinellas County to help students transition to college or workforce training programs after high school. That program is now getting started in Hillsborough County as well, he says.

Tiernan says the Regional Competitiveness Report is one key source of information Community Foundation Tampa Bay relies on to measure the impact of those programs.

“From the LEAP perspective, we have stayed very connected to this,” he says. “I think one of the really positive outcomes of the Regional Competitiveness Report is it has made Tampa Bay embrace the idea of what it means to be data-informed. I intentionally don’t use the word data-driven because you can move up in the rankings even if you have a little backslide in your percentage. So you really need the context around it. What I think it has done for the region is really whet the appetite for us to all be intentional about the kind of work we do together. I think LEAP is a great example of that because starting in middle school on through we are working to make that journey for a student toward their ultimate place in the workforce as smooth a pathway as possible.” 

For more information, go to State of the Region.
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.