Anyone who has ever ventured onto roads in the Tampa Bay area knows traffic congestion is one of our major problems.
According to the 2012 American Community Survey among metropolitan areas, Tampa Bay-area commuters have the fourth-highest commuting time, at 52 minutes per day (26 minutes each way). That works out to 4.3 hours per week, 17.3 hours a month, or 208 hours a year — stuck in traffic.
Recently, I was invited to attend some meetings among business, industry and other community stakeholders to help develop a “Vision 2020” for the Tampa Bay area.
Unscientifically, the group has concluded its primary focus should be on addressing the area’s transportation needs. It seems like a no-brainer, but this conclusion was achieved only after assessing the landscape and considering a variety of other issues, such as: a new home for the Rays, education, the future of MacDill AFB, attracting new jobs, protecting our environmental assets, and tourism and marketing to attract new visitors.
At our last meeting, it occurred to me that while, yes, we need to address transportation and other problem areas, the Tampa Bay area also needs to collectively embrace all that makes the area so great, and stop viewing Tampa Bay the body of water as a divider.
The following is my list of 20 of the biggest assets the Tampa Bay area has to offer its residents, visitors and future generations. They are listed in no particular order.
20. Largest television media market in the state. Many wrongly believe that South Florida is the largest media market in Florida, but it is not — we are. The region is also home to several newspapers, and seven local television stations providing viewers with local news (including a 24-hour local news channel), as well as Spanish-language news. Interesting fact: The Tampa area television media market is the 14th-largest in the U.S., reaching about 2 million homes.
19. Institutions of higher education. From USF, the University of Tampa, Stetson University School of Law and Eckerd College, to Hillsborough Community College and St. Pete College, achieving a world-class education is no more than a 30-minute drive from anywhere in Hillsborough or Pinellas County. Interesting fact: USF ranks 15th worldwide for granted U.S. patents among all universities.
18. Tampa International Airport. TIA was ranked third in passenger satisfaction and quality service among global airports serving 15 million to 25 million passengers last year by Airports Council International and also ranked third-best airport in North America. The airport is a major driver of our economy. A major expansion is under way, and if airport director Joe Lopano’s track record is any indication, he isn’t going to settle for third place for long. Interesting fact: The top export out of the airport is tropical fish; the second highest is human remains.
17. Cultural activities. With fantastic facilities such as the Straz Center, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Mahaffey Theater, Broadway shows and other first-class cultural entertainment opportunities in the Tampa Bay area far surpass cities our size. Interesting fact: The largest-grossing single performance by any artist or show ever at the Straz Center was Janet Jackson in 2011.
16. Winning sports teams. In the past 12 years, Tampa Bay has seen its teams make it to their respective sports’ championship games — with the Bucs winning a Super Bowl, the Lightning the Stanley Cup, and the Rays the 2008 American League Championship Series and appearing in the World Series. Interesting fact: Longtime Tampa Tribune cartoonist Lamar Sparkman designed the Bucs’ first team logo.
15. Great venues. Raymond James Stadium remains a top-notch sporting venue that not only serves as home field for the Bucs and the USF Bulls but is an inviting place for a host of other events, including Monster Truck rallies, concerts and Bollywood. We’ve also got the Forum, which hosts the Lightning and welcomed the Republican National Convention in 2012. Interesting fact: Only three people were arrested during the RNC in Tampa — hundreds were arrested at the RNC four years earlier in St. Paul, Minn.
14. Museums, zoos, theme parks and aquariums galore. The Dali Museum, which houses an impressive collection of artwork by its namesake, also is an architectural marvel. Other places of interest: the Museum of Science and Industry, Busch Gardens, Tampa Art Museum, The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, The Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo and the Florida Botanical Gardens. Interesting fact: The Dali Museum is one of just two category-5 hurricane-rated buildings in St. Petersburg (the other is All Children’s Hospital).
13. World-class beaches. “World-class” can certainly be an overused metaphor, but not when describing Pinellas beaches. Soft sand, calm currents, sunshine and an average annual mean temperature of 72 make Pinellas beaches among the best in the world. Add to that 150 well-maintained parks in Pinellas, and you see why the county is such a great place for outdoor activities. Interesting fact: Fort De Soto and Caladesi Island State Park are frequently ranked among North America’s best beaches.
12. A varied economy. The largest employer in the Tampa Bay area is government. MacDill AFB, USF and the local school systems are among the largest government employers. But business and industry are big employers as well. Among some of the biggest employers are Publix, Home Shopping Network, Busch Gardens, TECO, Raymond James, Raytheon, Jabil Circuit and a number of hospitals. Interesting fact: The Hillsborough County school district is the eighth-largest school system in the country.
11. Medical care. The Tampa Bay area is poised to become one of the nation’s leading “health care tourism” destinations in the country. From Moffitt Cancer Center to Bayfront Medical and everything in between (not to mention a superior medical school at USF), the Tampa Bay area provides quality health care and enough Vitamin D from the sunshine to make any patient looking for treatment to consider coming here. Interesting fact: Over 100,000 people are employed in the health care field in the Tampa region.
10. Fishing. From the flats of the bay to the shores of the beaches, to waters deep in the Gulf of Mexico, ours is a place anglers young and old from around the world love to fish. Interesting fact: In 1521 Tampa began as an Indian fishing village. Native Calusa called the village by the bay “Tanpa”, which meant “sticks of fire.”
9. Affordability. With a median household income of $55,000 and a median home price of just $134,500, homeownership and fulfilling the “American dream” in Tampa is within reach for most working people. Interesting fact: In 2012 Forbes magazine listed Tampa among the “50 Best Cities” in the United States. It was the only city from Florida to make the list.
8. Cultural diversity. It has been said that the Tampa Bay area — the hub of the I-4 corridor — is one of the most racially and culturally diverse areas in the nation, which explains why it is such a “purple” battleground in state and federal elections. That diversity is what makes our area’s character what it is today and what it will be tomorrow. Interesting fact: The birthplace of the Cuban sandwich is in Ybor City. Ybor’s first immigrants primarily came from Italy, Cuba and Spain to work in Tampa’s cigar factories.
7. Politicians who work together and think out of the box. I’m not one to pat the politicians on the back too much, but by and large, our local elected officials all work well together, and many have the vision to take the region to the next level. We’ve got some shining stars in such people as Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, mayors Bob Buckhorn and Rick Kriseman, state Sen. Jack Latvala, and Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, to name a few. Interesting fact: Sheriff Gee majored in mathematics in college and is a helicopter pilot.
6. The weather. On many of the worst days up North this past winter, visitors and residents in the Tampa Bay area were out at the beach, playing golf or working in the yard. And summer downpours only last an hour or two, to which you can set your watch. Interesting fact: Lots of people up North wished they lived in Florida this winter.
5. Endless trails. From Flatwoods Preserve in Thonotosassa to Brooker Creek Preserve in north Pinellas, to downtown Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard, the region has trails galore for hiking, walking, running and bicycling. Interesting fact: The new pedestrian/bicycle bridge alongside the Courtney Campbell Causeway cost $14.6 million. It is the only bridge across the bay free of vehicle traffic; fishing is prohibited from the structure.
4. Port Tampa Bay. Probably one of the most overlooked assets of the region is Port Tampa Bay in Tampa. It’s far more than just a cruise terminal. The port is the No. 1 economic engine in the region. It generates nearly 100,000 jobs and produces nearly $15 billion in annual economic impact to the Tampa region. Interesting fact: Teddy Roosevelt and his troops, including the Rough Riders, departed from Port Tampa in 1898 on their way to support Cuba in the Spanish-American War.
3. A foodies’ delight. From world-renowned steakhouses to notable seafood, ethnic and other restaurants, the Tampa Bay region has a plethora of food options ranging from fine dining to food trucks. Interesting fact: This year and in 2013, Tampa broke the world record for the largest food truck rally.
2. Beer. With all that great food, residents need a nice cold one to wash it down. The Tampa/St. Pete area is home to several world-renowned and award-winning microbreweries, and several popular beer festivals. Interesting fact: There are over 58,000 beers brewed commercially around the world. There are 15 breweries in the Tampa Bay region producing over 200 of those beers.
1. Water. It’s everywhere, and it drives our economy in many ways. Tampa Bay, the Gulf and our area’s lakes, rivers, streams and springs are assets to be cherished and embraced.
Interesting fact: Tampa Bay is the largest open-water estuary in Florida, encompassing nearly 400 square miles and bordering three counties — Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas.
The bay’s sprawling watershed covers a land area nearly five times as large, at 2,200 square miles.
Despite our challenges, we should constantly remind ourselves of all of the wonderful things this place we call home has to offer, and we should be proud of those offerings — and even brag about them often.
I am reminded of an old country saying, “If you can’t brag about the frogs in your own pond, nobody else will.”
Brag away Tampa Bay.
Chris Ingram is a columnist, consultant and political analyst for Bay News 9. Follow him on Twitter @IrreverentView.