FLORIDA Perception vs. Reality
An economic tale of two cities in Florida
Orlando and St. Petersburg embody the Florida challenge: Creating a new economic reality in the shadow of enduring stereotypes.
A New Sense of Place
The city's image as a retiree haven persists, but the reality is something else entirely.
Old: Green benches once were iconic images of the city ...
New: ... But the downtown waterfront today is young and stylish. [Right: Mark Wemple]
The dark green benches that became iconic symbols of downtown St. Petersburg have been gone for nearly 50 years — removed by city leaders in an effort to update the image of a city so rich with white-haired retirees that it was referred to as "God's waiting room."
The old image of St. Petersburg as a retiree haven persists, however — some non-residents still think the benches are there — even as the city has evolved to become a magnet for young professionals and families.
Today, a revitalized downtown boasts sidewalk cafes, shops, a grocery store, condominium towers, nightclubs and a city-owned stretch of waterfront that has preserved the best views for the public. The Dali Museum's new home on the waterfront downtown has earned national accolades and further cemented the city's reputation as an arts center.
The changes mirror demographic shifts. In 1970, people 65 years and older made up 30% of St. Petersburg's population. By 2010, that portion had fallen to 15.7%.
Civic leaders describe a gradual turnaround with many turns and starts along the way. Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and others cite the redevelopment of the historic waterfront Vinoy hotel in the 1990s as an important trigger for downtown redevelopment.
Another key change was the addition of shops and restaurants along Beach Drive and the presence of downtown employers that supplied a steady stream of young professionals. For downtown to succeed "it has to become a place where people would go if they had nothing to do," says Baker.
A big factor in the city's progress was improvements to nearby neighborhoods — amenities such as dog parks, water slides at public pools, better bike paths and more sidewalks. "It wasn't one little thing," says St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Chris Steinocher.
Ironically, says Steinocher, many of the changes have ultimately been geared toward what the green benches helped to create for an earlier generation — a sense of place. "The irony of what people liked about the green benches" he says, "is you could see people."