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No shortage of shopping money

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


In the hit 1997 movie Men in Black, a secret police force dressed in dark suits maintains the blissful ignorance of the general population toward the aliens living among us.

The same force also must have kept hidden the rising tide of millionaires inhabiting the Tampa Bay area.

No longer. In a sign of our area's untold wealth, the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan statistical area, or MSA, boasts more than 25,000 millionaires.

In fact, in a state in which more than 158,000 millionaires reside, the Tampa Bay metro area has more of the seven-figure fortunates than any other MSA in the entire state.

Maybe we need a new slogan. "Tampa Bay: Richer than we look!"

Given Friday's opening of the upscale International Plaza shopping mall in Tampa, evidence of so many area millionaires raises a few questions.

Neiman Marcus, what took you so long?

Tiffany, why didn't you invite us to breakfast earlier?

Nordstrom, how did you ever live without us?

While the Tampa Bay area tends to identify itself with beach flip-flops and call center jobs, a boom in wealth has been taking place.

Among Florida counties, Pinellas has the fourth-largest number of millionaires, with 11,199. Hillsborough is right behind at No. 5 with 9,935. (Palm Beach is first with 19,586.)

Nationwide, among 4,141 counties, Pinellas and Hillsborough rank 37th and 55th, respectively, in the number of millionaires.

(By millionaires, the demographic researchers at Claritas Inc. sensibly count folks with at least $1-million in bank accounts, mutual funds, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds and similar liquid investments. They do not include the value of people's primary home or their vehicles.)

Our local crop of millionaires caught the eye of Taubman Centers, the Michigan mall company that's always hunting for communities with an urge to spend and the money to do so. Taubman built the new International Plaza and convinced Neiman Marcus, Tiffany, Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom and 91 other stores and upscale boutiques never before seen in this area that Tampa Bay was a free-spending kind of place. In all, the mall promises 166 planned stores and restaurants.

Now, like most of the 3-million or so folks living around the Tampa Bay area, I'm no millionaire. Not by a long shot.

But I'm still curious about this latest and most unusual of malls to land in our little west-central Florida world. Its arrival tells a bit more about us.

International Plaza means the Tampa Bay area is maturing enough financially to start appealing to more of those tony stores that typically cater to such deep-wealth enclaves as Palm Beach or such bigger, richer cities as Atlanta, Dallas and Washington.

(Saks Fifth Avenue, which opened a store in Tampa's Westshore Plaza in the fall of 1998, is the area's only other large retailer with truly upscale pretensions.)

International Plaza's arrival also means new temptations for us all to spend beyond our means. The habit used to be called "keeping up with the Joneses." But in today's consumption fever, it's more like "keeping up with the Trumps." People are keen on buying bigger homes. They prefer upscale vehicles. They dine out more frequently and, lest we forget, tend to borrow aggressively to help pay for it all.

If Florida's slower economy sticks around and the growing volume of area layoffs continues, International Plaza's debut may be more muted than its merchants hoped. But I doubt the bay area can resist the allure of shopping new stores.

Still, here's some friendly advice to shoppers of modest wallet tempted to snap up Neiman Marcus' $1,090 Manolo Blahniks boots or one of the store's $110 ties, the cheapest in stock.

Count to 10 -- no, let's make it 20 -- before plunking down cash or credit.

Sure, we may be home to 25,581 millionaires. But they won't all be lined up at International Plaza on Friday morning. Most of them did not become millionaires by hanging out at Neiman Marcus, whose average customer spends $10,000 a year.

But Taubman is no dummy. The mall company did not build International Plaza without doing its demographic homework. Neiman Marcus? Nordstrom? Hugo Boss? Christian Dior? They all analyzed the Tampa Bay area's wealth potential long before signing leases at International Plaza.

If we have so many millionaires, where are they?

Based on ZIP code analysis by Claritas, a San Diego demographics company, Sun City Center has the greatest number of local millionaires with 716. Valrico follows, trailed by ZIP codes in Tampa, Dunedin, Brandon, Port Richey, Palm Harbor, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

Maybe all these new high-end stores are on to something. The market of millionaires is about to grow faster than kudzu.

Claritas projects the number of millionaires in Florida will grow from 158,397 this year to 227,651 in 2006. That's a 44 percent increase.

By 2006, Pinellas County millionaires will grow by 39 percent to a projected 15,586. Hillsborough millionaires will increase even faster, by 59 percent, and pass Pinellas by 2006 with 15,836.

That's a whole lot of future big-buck shoppers.

* * *

Paul Dresselhaus has forgotten more than most folks know about the Tampa Bay area's hidden depth of wealth.

Nine years ago in St. Petersburg, the young banker opened the first area office of Chicago-based Northern Trust Bank to cater to wealthy clients.

"The area's rich demographics were something we could not ignore," Dresselhaus told me in 1992.

Nine years later, Dresselhaus has expanded Northern Trust's local assets, opened a second upscale office in downtown Tampa and will open a third office in Belleair just south of Clearwater in October.

Just as Northern Trust pursued the wealthy to the bay area, others were sure to follow, Dresselhaus said Friday.

"International Plaza is a real coup for the area," he said. But it's just the latest of many upscale projects and signs of wealth that have transformed the bay area.

Dresselhaus rattles off examples. The boom in South Tampa real estate values and rise of Harbour Island home building. The retail openings of Centro Ybor in Ybor City and BayWalk in St. Petersburg. The investment in Tampa's Channelside district. The construction of expensive condominiums along St. Petersburg's waterfront and near Clearwater Beach. The building of Raymond James Stadium. The growing support behind developing downtown Tampa's cultural district.

Such momentum was not always there.

When the Northern Trust banker first landed in St. Petersburg, people were whining about the inability to get a Major League Baseball team. The downtown area boasted one aging condo tower. Dresselhaus had a moment of doubt.

"The numbers on area wealth did not lie, but back then it looked like they did," he said with a laugh.

No more. Come Friday, more than a few local millionaires are sure to make a beeline for the ritzy International Plaza.

After all, around here millionaires are now a dime a dozen.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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