TAMPA — New hotels are opening. New restaurants aren’t far behind. New apartments are on the horizon.
And new numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau bear out what you can see with your own two eyes in the growth of downtown Tampa’s business environment.
Between 2007, when the recession stalled developments all over Tampa, and 2012, the most recent numbers available, the city added more than 3,100 private jobs in the ZIP code that includes downtown and Tampa Heights.
That figure doesn’t include every possible job. Census counters omit positions in agriculture, government and self-employed people without employees.
During that same period, downtown also added 110 employers, the census figures show.
What’s behind it all?
Architect Mickey Jacob draws a straight line between all those new jobs and all the new people calling downtown Tampa home.
“Downtown is the heartbeat of the city,” said Jacob, executive vice president at BDG Architects. “It always will be the heartbeat of the city.”
Jacob and his wife recently moved from South Tampa to Harbour Island to be more a part of Tampa’s downtown scene. He can commute to work by foot on the Tampa Riverwalk between his home and office in the Wells Fargo building on South Ashley Drive.
Rising employment has begun making office space hard to come by in downtown, where most of the landmark towers report vacancies of less than 10 percent, said Anne-Marie Ayers, who specializes in downtown leasing at commercial real estate broker CB Richard Ellis.
The much larger West Shore Business District still accounts for far more jobs than downtown Tampa, but downtown is where the change is most pronounced. “Typically West Shore leads the market out of any recession,” Ayers said. “And that is not happening this time.”
Since 2012, downtown’s office occupancy has risen 2.7 percent, compared with less than 1 percent in West Shore, she said.
The same census figures that show a rise in downtown employment show a decrease of 5,000 workers since 2007 in the two ZIP codes that cover West Shore, the state’s largest concentration of office space.
West Shore officials dispute the census assessment, noting that the district has added retail, restaurants and commercial space in recent years. Vacancy rates are running around 10 percent, said Ron Rotella, executive director of the West Shore Business Alliance. Rotella said figures from the city-county planning commission put West Shore’s workforce at about 93,000 people, nearly 10,000 more than the census estimate.
Ayers said West Shore has always been seen as the place to rent business space and downtown has been associated with government and law offices.
That’s changing as more people move into the city’s urban core, she said.
“Residential is driving the retail and restaurant, which is then driving the interest, which then is going to require office,” Ayers said.
Developer Frank DeBose, who is working on hotel, condo and office projects at the Tampa Housing Authority’s Encore project, sees a time in five to 10 years when Encore will be at the center of downtown instead of at the edge.
“I think there is a good amount of momentum for things turning around in downtown Tampa,” DeBose said.
That momentum is still building, said Chris Kirschner, Jacob’s partner at BDG. For all the growth, downtown still has lots of empty spaces waiting for something to happen, he said.
“Downtown’s got a long way to go,” he said.
The Great Recession sobered up many of the speculators who were promising pie-in-the-sky projects a decade ago, Kirschner said. “There’s a lot of things occurring slowly,” he said. “If you look at it in it’s entirety, it bodes well for the future.”
With more residential towers either under construction or on the drawing boards in downtown and the Channel District, the city is likely to see more workers — particularly the millennials Mayor Bob Buckhorn is trying to recruit — seeking jobs within walking distance of their homes, Ayers said.
“With the Riverwalk and all the changes the city has made, it’s vibrant,” Ayers said. “It’s a living, breathing city now.”