By Times staff writers
Local biz stories of the year
In February, Duke Energy kills off the crippled Crystal River nuclear plant, left lame for years after the company tried a do-it-yourself upgrade project that left cracks in the containment wall that shields the reactor. In August, the company pulls the plug on the proposed Levy County nuclear project. The total bill for the two failures: about $5 billion, of which customers are on the hook for about $3 billion. What the customers get in return: not a single watt of electricity. The response to this $5 billion folly from most of the elected officials in Tallahassee: Yawn.
The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act was passed by Congress in 2012. But the tidal wave of consequences weren't felt until 2013, with Pinellas County in particular and the Tampa Bay area in general right at the center of this pocketbook issue.
To keep the National Flood Insurance Program afloat, the act called for the elimination of subsidies that date back decades. Many homeowners in older homes in flood zones were shocked to find out their annual premiums would jump about 20 percent annually for several years. And anyone who bought a subsidized home after the act took effect will lose the subsidies immediately, which can cause annual premiums to soar by 500 percent or more.
The list is impressive and diverse: Amazon, USAA, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Trader Joe's, Copa Airlines, Gander Mountain, HealthPlan Services, Time Warner, Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. They are coming or have already opened or agreed to bring more jobs to Hillsborough County this year. USAA said it will add up to 1,215 jobs by 2019 as it builds a 420,000-square-foot facility in Brandon; HealthPlan Services is adding 1,000 jobs in Tampa; Amazon plans to build warehouses in Ruskin and Lakeland, adding about 1,000 jobs; Bristol-Myers Squibb is adding 579 jobs by 2017. You get the idea. Hillsborough economic development officials had a very good year.
The rise of rental nation
Investment firms with armies of home analysts, bulk buyers and auction watchers flooded Tampa Bay's housing market in 2013, spending more than $800 million buying thousands of suburban homes at bottom-of-thebarrel prices. Their bet? That their new acquisitions would attract a burgeoning market of renters, from foreclosed families unable to get a new loan to former homeowners craving the freedom of something new. Led by private-equity giant Blackstone, investors opened established homeowner neighborhoods to renters and elbowed out first-time buyers with a flood of cash. But they also led home prices to surge and invested in repairs many homes had gone without.
TIA lands Copa flights
This year Tampa International Airport landed one of the biggest deals in its 42-year history: Panamanian carrier Copa Airlines announced that it would fly four times a week to Tampa, creating a link for tourism and trade that the bay area has long sought in Latin America. Copa's major hub in Panama City puts Tampa one connecting flight away from the rest of Central and South America. The flights, which started this month, will help Tampa Bay firms better compete for Latin American business and help the bay area develop a market for Latin American tourism advantages Orlando and Miami have enjoyed for years. Airport CEO Joe Lopano and his staff spent 2?½ years chasing the Copa deal, which was sealed when TIA's economic development partners pledged dollars and marketing muscle to help fill airplane seats.
Universal Health Care implodes
Once a bright star in downtown St. Petersburg, Universal Health Care buckled under allegations of fraud, embezzlement and diversion of funds. The FBI raided the office in March, and by summer the 1,000-employee office was no more. The bankruptcy court trustee alleged a "pattern of dishonesty or gross mismanagement" at Universal, including "side deals" that benefited insiders, though no arrests have been made. Among the examples cited: a transfer of more than $18.3 million to another company controlled by Universal founder Dr. Akshay Desai last year and $2.2 million in "bonuses and other compensation" to company officers and directors in addition to their salaries, also in 2012.
to 6.4 percent
The state's unemployment rate fell faster than almost ever other state's. It started the year at 7.9 percent and fell nearly every month through November, the last month for which data is available. One caveat: The state's labor pool keeps shrinking despite increases in the overall population. That could mean a lot of people waiting to return to work (or to look for work) in the coming months or years.
Pinellas tourism sets record
The juggernaut that is Pinellas County tourism kept rolling in 2013. Pinellas collected a record $31 million in tourist bed tax the 5 percent surcharge tacked onto every short-term rental in fiscal year 2013. What's remarkable about that feat is that the old record, $28.7 million, was set when the Republican National Convention came to town in 2012. But Pinellas needed no once-in-a-century event to boost 2013 tourism. Officials credit more focused advertising especially online. They also targeted specific ZIP codes up North during the winter and refocused on bay area and Orlando residents in the summer. The 2013 boom could bring in even more tourism revenue: Pinellas is on track to become the sixth Florida county to be declared a "high tourism impact" area, which would allow Pinellas to raise the bed tax to 6 percent, adding even more money to tourist tax coffers.
TIA announces master plan
Get a good look at the old Tampa International Airport, because starting next year a new airport will rise in its place. In 2013 the airport's overseer, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board, approved a $4.1 billion blueprint to expand and modernize the airport by 2028. The airport plans to spend $2.5 billion on new construction and $1.6 billion in upgrades and repairs over the next two decades. The first phase of construction starts in 2014, when the airport will spend $1 billion to build a new consolidated car rental facility south of the airport and a new 1.3-mile automated people mover to link it to the main terminal. Set to be finished by 2017, the project is expected to create 8,000 jobs. The first phase will relieve traffic congestion and set the stage for the next phases: expanding the main terminal and building a new international airside and new air-traffic control tower in the decades to come.
Home prices climb
The Tampa Bay housing market's sturdy improvements in 2012 looked like chump change in 2013. Early listing data show single-family home sales here jumped 8 percent in 2013, to more than 34,000 sales, the highest level since 2005. And with that boom came rising home prices, which climbed 17 percent to $155,000, the highest median price tag in five years. Few could doubt the market was finally in recovery after a prolonged and devastating bust. Many buyers fretted over a new housing bubble, though the market has since cooled, as mortgage rate and flood insurance hikes led buyers to recheck their budgets. Another housing bust? Economists say unlikely, and are predicting further price growth in 2014.