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It's time for us to grow up

The chairman's address to the Committee of One Hundred tempers the area's good news with a strong dose of reality.

Published February 17, 2006

The mood of self-congratulation was encapsulated by the slogan "Beyond Compare" as the Committee of One Hundred held its annual banquet at Tampa's Hyatt Regency on Wednesday night.

But when Bob Abberger took the podium after his installation as chairman of the Tampa Bay area's largest business recruitment agency, he dispensed with the script and served up comparisons unflattering to Tampa.

Unemployment of less than 3 percent is a mixed blessing if it means labor scarcities, he warned. Housing has grown too expensive to attract workers with the lower-than-average wages paid in the area. Roads and schools are stressed.

To describe the business climate, Abberger used the words "formula for failure" and "canaries in a mine shaft." What gives?

"None of these in and of themselves are the end of our economic success," Abberger said after delivering his message to about 500 business and governmental types. "They're simply areas we have to focus on."

In becoming chairman of the Committee of One Hundred, a branch of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Abberger is in a unique position to steer job recruitment and development strategies in the region.

He succeeded University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, who ended a rare two-year stint in the chamber post.

Abberger based his views on comparisons with Sun Belt cities like Orlando, Jacksonville and Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C. For good measure, he threw in larger markets like Miami, Dallas and Atlanta.

Matched against those metro areas, Tampa's average wage of $36,900 lands it in the cellar of the income category.

Add to that home prices that have swelled about 30 percent in the past year and you've identified a corporate recruiting headache, Abberger said. Where will the mostly middle-income workers live?

Education is key, too. Tampa residents earn fewer degrees, graduate less often from high school and score lower on SATs than residents of competing cities, Abberger said.

Tampa is transitioning from a third-rank to a first-rank market, he said.

The tourism, service and manufacturing economy has served well in the past, but it's time to land the corporate headquarters, international businesses and biotech firms that boost average wages.

"We're a rapidly maturing market and have to address those challenges," he said.

Abberger is the regional director of development for the Trammell Crow Co., specializing in office and industrial construction.

So he's also critical of growth management laws that threaten to withhold building permits in the name of sparing overcrowded roads and schools. If government restrictions slow builders, "Our growth will grind to a halt and we'll not be able to reap the benefits of all these opportunities," Abberger said.

Abberger admitted he was short on specific answers. "You never win by telling somebody you have all the answers," he said.

[Last modified February 17, 2006, 02:15:35]

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