White sand beaches that beckon for miles and record-setting golden sunshine have long lured tourists to Florida’s southwest coast and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, but in more recent years the metropolitan area known as the St. Petersburg-Tampa-Clearwater Metropolitan Statistical Area has diversified from tourism and fishing businesses into technology-related industries, education, manufacturing, military activity and even professional sports franchises.
Pinellas County’s county seat, Clearwater, is lapped by the Gulf of Mexico to the west, and is the area’s second-largest city. So many retirees flock here for the climate, laid-back lifestyle and comparatively low cost of living that the average age skews older, 44.4 years, than in most other U.S. municipalities, and those numbers have been rising for the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census. As far as education, more than 1 in 4, or 27.6 percent, held a bachelor’s or higher degree, and the median household income from 2011 through 2015 was $44,198, the Census said. Hotels for five major chains are among the top property taxpayers, but high-tech, light manufacturing, financial and service industries also are strong.
St. Petersburg, 20 miles south, is the biggest city in Pinellas County, the fourth most populous in Florida and at the heart of the state-dominating, seven-county media market known as the Tampa Bay Area. Sixty percent of Florida’s high-tech industries are in St. Petersburg, though six other industry clusters — manufacturing; financial and professional services; film and digital media; life sciences; information technology; and defense and security — also are major sectors, according to the city’s Office of Economic Development. St. Petersburg holds the Guinness World Record for consecutive sunny days (768) and is a favored destination for retirees. Its beaches on Tampa Bay are ranked highly. The mean age in 2016 was 41.8, and 30.9 percent of the population held bachelor’s degrees or higher; median household income for the four years ending in 2015 was $45,748, the Census reported. The biggest employer in 2016, the city found, was the Baycare Health System Inc., its 56 hospitals having 22,900 employees.
Industries of the county’s past — citrus farming and cattle ranching — have been largely replaced by companies catering to space-age needs, such as Jabil Circuit (St. Petersburg) and Tech Data Corp. (Clearwater), and information-driven marketing firms like HSM (Home Shopping Network), Nielsen, Catalina Marketing and ValPak. Pinellas County Economic Development (PCED) projects a population jump for the Tampa Bay Area from its present 4 million to 6 million by 2030. Currently, consumer spending totals $70 billion annually, and the workforce numbers 2 million, making it No. 20 in the U.S. in terms of job growth, the PCED says.
Pinellas and Hillsborough counties’ most abundant resources are free: sunshine, balmy temperatures, subtropical and tropical vegetation such as hibiscus, tree orchids and palms, beaches and blue surf. These assets draw tourists and retirees, and their accommodations and activities furnish much of the region’s money. Hillsborough County, in addition, has extensive fossil phosphate deposits that have been mined since 1888 for fertilizer.
Rail, Road, Air and Water Access
The Tampa Bay Transportation Network, which includes Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, connects the area by land, sea and air.
Three interstates run through Tampa — I-4, I-75 and I-275, which loops off I-75 north of the city and curves west, crossing Old Tampa Bay on the Howard Frankland Bridge before passing through St. Petersburg and rejoining I-75 by way of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge south of Tampa. U.S. highways include U.S. 41, U.S. 92 and U.S. 19. There are numerous state routes as well, and two additional bridges that span Tampa Bay or Old Tampa Bay: the Courtney Campbell Causeway and the Gandy Bridge. The fastest way across Tampa is the Leroy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, an east-west toll road that links to the Gandy Bridge and U.S. 92 over the bay. Because of the ports and highway network, over-the-road trucking is strong. In 2012, Tampa Bay had about 143 million square feet of industrial space, 76 million square feet more approved for development and 500 miles of CSX Transportation railroad and siding, according to the region’s most recent regional profile. CSX runs a freight route into St. Petersburg as well.
The Port of Tampa Bay, Port of St. Petersburg and Port Manatee are all major U.S. seaports, with the Port of Tampa Bay, the largest, handling 14.2 million net tons of total bulk and general cargo in fiscal year 2016 and about 813,000 cruise passengers a year, leading to a $15 billion annual impact and nearly 100,000 related jobs, the port says. Five cruise lines now make calls there.
MacDill Air Force Base
MacDill Air Force Base, activated in 1941 on the tip of the peninsula that divides Old Tampa Bay/Tampa Bay from Hillsborough Bay, is the second-largest employer in Tampa, says the city’s 2014 Comprehensive Financial Report. It hosts both the U.S. Central Command, responsible for U.S. security in 25 nations, the U.S. Special Operations Command, whose charge is the global war on terrorism, and the 6th Air Mobility Wing, which refuels U.S. military aircraft worldwide. The nation’s Hurricane Hunters also are based here.
Seventeen miles to the northeast lies Tampa, Florida’s third-largest city and the county seat of Hillsborough County. The military has been a presence since the U.S. Army set up Fort Brooke in 1824 at the mouth of the Hillsborough River, near what is today the Tampa Convention Center. Until the 1880s, the population dawdled but starting in that decade jumped from fewer than 800 people to more than 30,000 in 20 years, thanks to the discovery of rich phosphate deposits, a new railroad and the birth of the cigar industry. The Port of Tampa facilitated imports of “clear Havana tobacco” from nearby Cuba for hand-rolling into cigars, which the railroad then carried all over the United States. The industry’s peak year, 1929, saw more than 500 million cigars rolled in the Ybor City neighborhood. These days Tampa has moved to national defense, real estate, service industries, retail, finance, insurance, shipping by air and sea, tourism and professional sports as its main economic engines. Food matters too, for residents as well as the thousands of tourists. Since 2012 when the city council moved to protect its culinary turf, Tampa has had an official sandwich, the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich,” which differs from other cities’ lesser Cuban sandwiches by the addition of Genoa salami to its shredded pork, glazed ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on white Cuban bread. On March 29, 2014, 121 of Tampa’s food trucks mustered to capture the Guinness title, crushing Miami’s 2013 count of 62.
The city’s 2014 Comprehensive Financial Report noted Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Tampa included Publix Supermarket, WellCare Health Plans, Jabil Circuit and Tech Data Corp. MacDill Air Force Base, home of the nation’s Hurricane Hunters and air refueling operations, attracts defense contractors, and there is also a healthy higher education presence: the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa, Hillsborough Community College and Stetson University College of Law. Bristol-Myers Squibb opened a 70,000-square-foot North American Capability Center on Jan. 30, 2014; HealthPlan Services expanded its Tampa headquarters adding more than jobs; and insurance, banking and credit card giant USAA is pouring $164.3 million into its Tampa-area operations that will require an additional 1,215 jobs by 2019.
A few of the entities that can provide useful economic information about the area are:
Tampa Bay Partnership
4300 W. Cypress St., Suite 700
Tampa, FL 33607 813-878-2208
A partnership between regional economic development organizations, stakeholders and businesses in eight counties, including Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, to conduct regional research and coordinate lobbying efforts for growth and development.
Economic Development Corporation
101 E. Kennedy Blvd., Suite 1750
Tampa, FL 33602 813-218-3300
This partnership between the public sector and private corporate investors is Hillsborough County’s lead economic development agency and the official local representative of Enterprise Florida, Inc.