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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Planners: Tech jobs can strain cities

— Friday was Pitch Day at Tampa Bay WaVE’s offices in Rivergate Tower.

Tampa’s downtown tech-industry incubator invited budding entrepreneurs to come pitch their products to potential investors assembled at WaVE’s second-floor offices.

It’s a scene Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and other regional boosters hope to see a lot more of as they try to make this corner of Florida a magnet for inventors, Internet entrepreneurs and other creative types.

The plan for luring more of those business builders hangs on two major undertakings: expanding the amount of apartments available in the urban core and improving mass transit.

That strategy comes with a downside, however, according to Richard Florida, an urban planning guru who encourages cities to make themselves attractive to creative-class workers.

Florida and his colleagues at the Toronto-based Martin Prosperity Institute recently looked at how residents of urban areas separate themselves from each other based on income and other factors.

Florida and Swedish researcher Charlotta Mellander found that the denser a region’s housing and the more transit options available, the more likely entrepreneurs and other creative workers are to live in their own enclaves, isolated from the rest of the population.

“In the end, I believe this could be damaging for these places,” Mellander said in an email. “The strength of these places is that they are diverse and they mix different backgrounds, which spurs innovation.”

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While it may be important for creative workers to get together to share ideas, it can also be important that they cross-pollinate with people from other career tracks, educational levels and incomes, Mellander said.

“So solving this segregation issue, I think, is crucial,” she said, “not just to avoid problems and clashes between different groups in a place, but also to keep on being arenas that spur new ideas and inventions.”

At this point, based on census data, the Tampa region — Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties — ranks near the bottom for creative-class isolation among the 51 large U.S. metropolitan areas Mellander studied.

At the top of the list are Los Angeles, Houston, San Jose (Silicon Valley) and San Francisco — all areas with a wide spread in incomes and housing options.

“Bigger metros tend to attract more knowledge work, and they are also beset by more intensive polarization of work into high- and extremely low-wage jobs,” Mellander said. “They also tend to have greater levels of gentrification and more exclusive ‘superstar’ neighborhoods where rents and property values are very high.”

So where are the Tampa area’s creative workers living?

A sampling of tech start-ups working in the Tampa Bay WaVE’s offices show staffers are all over.

Of 48 people who responded to the unscientific survey, a quarter came to downtown Tampa from St. Petersburg, Clearwater and elsewhere in Pinellas County.

A handful traveled from New Port Richey and Wesley Chapel in Pasco County. Others said they lived in Brandon, Temple Terrace, Plant City, Lutz and Carrollwood.

About half the people working at Tampa Bay WaVE’s site live within a few minutes of the office, mostly in downtown Tampa, the Channel District or the Hyde Park and South Howard areas.

Omar Garcia lives on Harbour Island and is developing Shootrac, software to help industries monitor equipment and the staff assigned to maintain it.

Garcia, 47, said Tampa’s creative types tend to be older than in other cities, which means they’re more anchored to those far-flung locations.

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By comparison, Internet giants like Google shuttle workers to and from the neighborhoods in San Francisco where they have congregated to their offices an hour away in Silicon Valley. In recent years, the workers and their shuttle buses have led to protests by San Francisco residents who say they’re being priced out of the city.

“This isn’t Silicon Valley,” Garcia said.

Richard Florida said that diverse geography is likely to narrow to a few high-profile neighborhoods as Tampa’s housing options grow and the creative sector matures. Developers are already laying the groundwork for that change as they add more three to five residential towers in the Channel District and downtown over the next few years.

Buckhorn trumpeted that new growth during his State of the City speech in April. During the speech he declared his support of Pinellas County’s upcoming transit tax referendum, known as Greenlight Pinellas.

“Yes, I am talking about rail that connects us to St. Pete and Pinellas County,” he told his audience. “When Pinellas succeeds, we succeed. We’re in this together.”

Garcia agrees that Tampa’s growing tech sector is likely to colonize the new downtown housing that’s on the horizon, if only so entrepreneurs waste less time commuting.

“My office takes me about five minutes to get to from my house,” Garcia said. “That maximizes my up time.”

Michael Lynch, 40, whose start-up developed a smartphone app to track food trucks, lives in Hyde Park. While he appreciates having neighbors from different backgrounds, Lynch said he could see a market for housing where people like him could live and work in the same building.

“We do really enjoy the working together aspect,” he said.

Florida and Mellander say it’s inevitable that Tampa’s creative classes will flow more to a few select areas. What’s important, Florida said, is that they don’t forget to interact with the rest of the city in the process.

“Society as a whole loses when our metros are more segregated by income, education and class as well as race,” Florida said.

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Twitter: @kwiatrowskiTBO

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