My Hard Times in Tampa

The Sunsets Are Still Free, But Economic Change Has High Costs

 

We hear so much about presidential candidates–and so little about life in the states that elect them. In “Beyond the Circus,” writers take us off the trail and give us glimpses of politically important places. Today, Tampa.

At some point in late 2009, my young daughter became concerned about all the stores and restaurants closing in our neighborhood. She used the line she uses to this day to express concern–“there’s one thing I’m a little worried about”–and then went on to explain her worry that we’d wake up one day to find all the stores closed.

“And then we’d have to move and I don’t want to move. I love it here.”

That’s what it’s been like in Florida: it’s enough to scare a little girl. It’s enough to scare parents, too. So, we’ve taught our daughter a little saying: the only thing that doesn’t change is change. Also, change is good.

Most days we believe this.

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As of this writing, there has been only one moment I felt real, gut-clenching fear during the Great Recession and the subsequent Not-So-Great Recovery.

It was December 12, 2011. I had just been laid off from my job at the Tampa Tribune. I was one of 165 to lose their jobs in the “Christmas Massacre.” Since 2007, while surviving nine rounds of layoffs, I had started to secretly wish for the axe to fall on my head. Better to get laid off with a severance check than stay onboard until the ship hit the iceberg.

But I made the classic mistake on the way out, after getting hugs, promises to keep in touch, offers of references. As I walked alone toward the elevators, carrying the obligatory box of belongings, I stopped and turned around.

And just like that, as I looked back at a sea of empty desks–my old one among them–and the small band of former co-workers already back in front of their computer screens, blind panic seized me. I’m never coming back. The world was spinning me away from everything I had ever known.

I have a 10-year-old kid!

I have a mortgage!

The only thing I know how to do is this!

What am I going to do?

All the warmth flowed from my body, water down the drain. I turned around and got the hell out of there. If looking back at the past made the future seem overwhelming, I figured it couldn’t be worse to go ahead and rush out into it.

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Friends and co-workers have shared similar tales about such moments the past few years, moments when they couldn’t believe how bad things had gotten, moments when they wondered whether they could stick it out in Florida. Some didn’t. Most have.

Given that backdrop, Republicans picked the right spot for their convention. People here are engaged. We’re a swing state, one of the biggest prizes of the bunch, and we know it. What are you going to do for us?

You’ll have to forgive our practical disposition. The recession, the slow recovery–they’ve punched the whole nation, but here the pummeling seems particularly relentless. The Miami Herald reported earlier this summer that Florida lost $54 billion in spending and wages between 2007 and 2011. The state unemployment rate is at 8.8 percent and actually rose in July. The rate in the counties that make up the Tampa Bay area had an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent; it also increased in July.

Orlando, Tampa Bay, and the Interstate 4 corridor that runs between them are going to be hotly contested areas this fall. I assure you it’s hotly contested already at dinner parties and weekend get-togethers. My wife got into an argument about Sarah Palin with an old friend not that long ago, for Pete’s sake. Sarah Palin! People are jumpy.

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Some businesses that have closed in our neighborhood since 2007: Denny’s, Perkins, Borders Books, Honey’s (our favorite local wing spot), JJ Ching’s (our favorite local Chinese restaurant), Justice for Girls, Rita’s Italian Ice, Cici’s Pizza, Albertson’s grocery store, Tilted Kilt, Hops, TGI Friday’s.

Number of jobless people who have asked me to be a reference: 11

Number of jobless people I know willing to admit they have given up looking for full-time work for now: 2

Number of jobless people I know who were homeless for a little while: 1

My wife and I find this Florida almost unrecognizable. We arrived here 20 years ago, looking for better wages and upward mobility. We wanted to catch the wave, and newcomers were arriving at a rate of 1,000 people per day. Per day.

We came to Tampa Bay, the second most populated metro area in the state (behind the behemoth of Miami-Ft. Lauderdale). My wife worked as director of communications for a global company. I worked for the Tampa Tribune as a reporter, editor, critic, and columnist. We fell in love with the place, which is what happens when you have friends, disposable income, and 1,800 miles of beaches.

It’s difficult to overstate the sheer of fun of living here. We played tourist for years. Disney World. SeaWorld. Busch Gardens. Beaches everywhere. We rode a carriage through cobbled streets in St. Augustine. We checked out bikers at Daytona and surfers on the East Coast. We ate lobster in Key West. We drove down Alligator Alley, the convertible top down. We drank Canadian beer at Toronto Blue Jays spring training games, with Canadians.

They have sunsets here worth getting into the car and driving to see.

We bought in, literally. Moved to the suburbs, got a dog, planned a second trip to Europe, had a kid instead. I became an editor. My wife quit her day job and did freelance work from home, including restaurant criticism. We were becoming the people we thought we’d become.

Now, we’re not sure what we’re becoming. Once you let go of those old dreams, though, it’s kind of liberating. The only thing that doesn’t change is change, remember. I got a 10-year-old who could tell you that.

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Here are some real stories about what has happened to friends and former co-workers who also had to adapt to change:

• A laid off, very popular former newspaper columnist took a job as a sales clerk at a mall clothing store.
• A small business owner with a construction-related company reduced his workforce from 22 to four, sublet his office, sold off much of his equipment–but he’s still hanging in there.
• A middle manager for a large and successful corporation got divorced in 2006 right before the crash and pulled out all his equity to give his ex-wife half the value of their former home. By 2010, with the house worth far less than he owed, he simply left the keys on the counter and walked away.
• In case you think this sort of thing is over, a co-worker told me over lunch this month that he is considering doing the exact same thing. “What’s the point, man?” he said to me. “I’m never going to get that money back.”
• Also, some friends just listed their home for a short sale.
• A restaurant supplier took a second job overseeing a valet service.
• A friend who used to take me to spring training baseball games lost his job, his car, his house. Now he lives in a motel with monthly rates and continues to look for work.

Most of these people, by the way, don’t talk seriously about leaving Florida.

Our own fortunes, much like those of Florida, have improved in 2012. Three months after losing my job, I accepted an offer from a Web-based company where I now work as a “search engine optimization content editor.” I’m in an industry that is growing revenue and adding jobs. It’s less money than I used to make, and we’re using savings to pay our mortgage. But there’s a future and the people have been very patient teaching the Old Man some new Web tricks.

I’ve been lucky. Spending only three months unemployed, I never got the chance to become truly terrified. It’s worse for others. They’d like to see a presidential candidate articulate a vision for improving the economy and job outlook. Romney is getting the first chance in Tampa.

Meanwhile, we’re doing what Floridians do: going to the beach, this time for our annual pilgrimage on the last weekend before the new school year.

We’ll save money by bringing everything to eat and drink. The sunset will be free.

So, here we are.

As of this writing.

Kevin Walker works in digital marketing and is a former newspaper columnist, critic, and editor.

*Photo courtesy of MyFWCmedia.


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