Tampa: A 'value stock' in transformation

Tampa, Florida — America's other city by the bay, but decidedly less expensive — has come a long way from its origins as a cigar manufacturing hub.

Sprawling, fast-growing and diverse, the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area is now home to nearly 3 million people. Meanwhile, business is as booming as its population growth: Financial services, tourism and trade have gradually supplanted cigars.

Recent data show that more than 200 people a day move in, which is about a fifth of Florida's entire net in-migration. Combined with Orlando, Tampa's explosive growth has pushed Florida's total population to nearly 20 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures — blowing past New York as the third-largest state.

The cigar rolling factories in Tampa's historic Ybor City are almost all gone. In their place, a diverse economy has sprung up — one that even includes the spring training location of the New York Yankees, the Major League Baseball rival of the local Tampa Bay Rays. Former Yankees' captain Derek Jeter owns a 30,000-square-foot place on the water, dubbed "St. Jetersburg," which is the size of a Best Buy store. His home is valued at more than $12 million

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Billionaire investor Jeff Vinik moved to Tampa six years ago, lured by the weather, water and what he described as a "what you see is what you get" type of economy.

"This area is an undiscovered gem," said Vinik, a former manager of Fidelity's Magellan fund. "Tampa is like a value stock. It really has not been found out yet. Business is taking off and I think we are in the middle of a bull market here."

The glamour of downstate Miami obscures the fact that it's Tampa, and not the Magic City, that is Florida's largest port — despite the bay's average depth of just 12 feet.

Financial services thrive. Raymond James is headquartered here, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup employ roughly 9,000 people collectively. That's about 1,000 fewer than the workforce of the Home Shopping Network, which is also based in the area.

At 4.4 percent, Tampa's unemployment is below the national average. The state's relatively low taxes, which Gov. Rick Scott consistently boasts is a draw for citizens fleeing high-tax states, also helps cut Tampa's cost of living.

The region's reasonably priced housing belies a torrid real estate market. According to Trulia, the median sales price for a house is about $175,000 right now, up about 7 percent in a year. Rent is about $1,350 a month for a two-bedroom home.

'No place like it anywhere'

Tampa skyline
Judy Kennamer | iStock/360 | Getty Images
Tampa skyline

Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lighting of the National Hockey League and the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League, is so bullish on the prospects for the nation's 20th largest metro area, he is leading a $2 billion project to transform 40 acres of Tampa's downtown corridor into a walkable, urban entertainment, residential and business hub. Bill Gates' investment arm, Cascade Investment, is a lead partner in the project.

"We've got a great city that has not reached its potential yet," said Vinik. "This project will transform Tampa into a 'live-work-play' destination for years to come. There's no place like it anywhere."

One piece of the redevelopment puzzle is Vinik's donation of an acre to the University of South Florida's medical school building in downtown Tampa. USF President Judy Genshaft recently told CNBC's "Power Lunch" that the endowment marks "a new chapter" for Tampa's economic future.

"The medical school not only will be an intellectual capital to the area, it will also be a big anchor for students and residents alike," said Genshaft.

With more than 47,000 students and an operating budget which exceeds $1.5 billion, USF ranks among the nation's top metropolitan research universities. It also ranks 10th in the nation for research patents, behind Stanford, MIT and the UC California Regents system.

Judging by at least one indicator, the revitalization plans are already paying off for USF. Genshaft told CNBC that applications to the medical school "spiked into the double digits" soon after the project was announced.

Boom times in Tampa

Raymond James, ranked No. 521 on the Fortune 1000, makes its home in the Tampa- St. Petersburg region, and plays a vital role in the local economy.

In 2006, the financial services company bought exclusive naming rights to Tampa's 70,000 seat stadium, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the University of South Florida Bulls football team and the New Year's Day Outback Bowl, as well as concerts and special events. Raymond James Stadium also hosted the 2001 and 2009 Super Bowls.

Raymond James CEO Paul Reilly said many of the company's 2.7 million clients have "held the course" this year.

"Most of our clients are seeing a benefit from the U.S. recovery," said Reilly. "We've seen a little more shift to cash, but not a lot more." As of March 10, analysts covering Raymond James have four "buys," three "holds" and not a single "sell" rating on the stock.

Baseball, and booming real estate

Stephen Gay, a real estate broker at Smith & Associates, told CNBC that Tampa's housing market is "hopping" right now.

"Sellers are in control, and inventories are extremely low. Buyers are looking for that perfect house, where they can just bring a toothbrush," said Gay. "There are a lot of apartments being built in downtown and South Tampa, over 1,200 properties and counting."

Foreign buyers from places as disparate as Brazil and the United Kingdom "are making a land rush to buy a piece of Tampa, especially in the trendy historic areas," said Gay. "We are also seeing plenty of interest from snowbirds looking for warmer climates, of course, but also sports fans who travel down each year for spring training."

Gay referred to the period between February and March, when MLB teams travel to train in Florida and Arizona. The Yankees reside each spring at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, the state's largest spring training ballpark, with a 11,026 capacity.

Yankees' first baseman Mark Teixeira said Tampa is in an economic "sweet spot" right now, thanks to the booming business of baseball.

"We have hundreds of thousands of fans who fly from all over the country, to get out of the cold and come down here and watch baseball," said Teixeira. "They go eat at the restaurants, and stay at the hotels and they go shopping at the malls. It is just a great thing for the city of Tampa to have the Yankees here every single spring."

The heart of Tampa's vital culinary and entertainment scene Teixiera referred to is the iconic Bern's Steak House, home to the largest wine cellar on the planet, and routinely named one of the best restaurants in the country.

Owner David Laxer told CNBC that his establishment serves "over 900 dinners per evening, all year round. And many of our staff have worked with us for over 40 to 50 years, so we are very proud of the economic role we play in our community here in Tampa."

Chad Johnson, executive chef of Haven, is an award-winning cook who has been pleasantly surprised at how integral food is to Tampa's culture. "The culinary scene has grown dramatically in Tampa over the past few years," said Johnson. "We've really become a global destination for those people who like to eat! I like to eat, too, and it's been great fun creating dishes here."

— CNBC's Tyler Mathisen and Karen Stern contributed to this article.