Dashboard points to sustainable progress

Rick Harper

Progress is never as rapid as we would like. However, the Studer Community Institute’s recently updated dashboard shows we, as a community, are moving forward, and I believe our gains are sustainable.

The numbers show that our two-county area improved in several areas, most notably in the continued economic recovery from the Great Recession. Our progress is being driven by high-quality job expansion that’s under way at area companies, including projects in cybersecurity. Quality educational programs and improvements to our quality of life amenities can help cement this progress.

The Institute’s dashboard is built to allow comparisons with other metro areas across the nation with a similar profile. Many are on the Gulf Coast, all have moderate population size, and most are in the Southeast. Many have a military presence or a focus on tourism.  Metro data can be seen and compared at www.studeri.org/dashboard.

Those data come from federal sources. While the federal statistical agencies use excellent sampling, collection and validation methods, this means that many of the elements are published with a lag. Because of the time needed to process these huge datasets, those multi-metro numbers that show 2015 conditions, such as population, are estimates. While they are quite accurate, they are updated as more data flow in. Certain other 2015 data, such as bed tax collections, show actual local data and do not rely on estimates.

The most recent dashboard data for the metro, which looks at the combined statistics for Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, show an improved high school graduation rate, a slightly higher share of college graduates, and a kindergarten readiness measure just above the state average.

The key economy and standard of living measures — per capita income, share of rent-burdened households and share of single-parent households — all showed modest improvement.

The labor force participation rate — the share of working-age people who are either employed or unemployed but seeking work — declined compared to last year. This decline took Pensacola closer to our peer metro areas and closer to our long-run average, suggesting that the previous year’s high value was an anomaly. This relationship is the source of national debate.

Members of the huge baby-boom generation approaching traditional retirement age appear more likely than past generations to retire early — but not always by choice. The Great Recession forced many into an unwanted early retirement.  Our population seems on trend to hit 500,000 by 2020. Population growth represents people voting with their feet. They stay or go based on their perceptions of economic opportunity and relative attractiveness of the community.

This year’s increase in bed tax revenue speaks volumes about how our visitors, whether contemplating retirement, contemplating a new job or just contemplating a wonderful time at the beach, see our community. As always, the challenge with tourism jobs is they do not pay as well, on average, as the manufacturing and military jobs that were the mainstay of the Pensacola economy a generation ago.

To counter that, we must push for policies that will improve our school systems and help attract and grow businesses that provide high-wage jobs. We also must continue to monitor the dashboard to ensure our standard of living continues to improve.

   Dr. Rick Harper serves as senior research fellow with the Studer Community Institute, a Pensacola, Florida-based organization that seeks citizen-powered solutions to challenges the community faces. He also serves as associate vice president for research and economic opportunity at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.

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