The CEO of a company came to me recently with a confidential request: "I'm considering expanding my company to St. Petersburg. What do you think of your town?" Of course, I wanted to brag about St. Pete, but I realized I didn't really have the hard facts that he was looking for to make a good decision. I was able to talk generally about the downtown here as far as business opportunities, growth, the arts and urban living downtown near our office. And, of course, I put him in touch with Mayor Rick Baker and other city leaders to get the real scoop.
But what I realized in the process is that I really didn't know enough specifics about downtown growth and development in St. Pete to give this CEO the overview he expected. So while he was gathering facts and statistics, so did I.
I discovered more specifics about what makes our downtown really vibrant. As Mayor Baker said in a PowerPoint presentation, "St. Pete is a changed city, a leader in redevelopment and a cultural center." If you haven't been to St. Pete in a while, that might not be the way you remember the city. The median age has dropped from 49 to 39 since 1970. More than 97,000 businesses employ 133,000 people.
We have a "hot" downtown with 1,000 downtown events each year, along with the Dali museum, the Devil Rays, the Mahaffey Theater, the Progress Energy Center for the Arts and more than 25 art galleries. Medical services employ 11,000 people downtown. With a deepwater port, the Pier and a great city marina, just driving around or catching the elevator and seeing the view from the new 16-story Progress Energy office tower downtown will take your breath away.
Various local and national developers have put their stamp on downtown. From Sembler Co.'s BayWalk mall to luxury high-rise residential properties such as Parkshore Plaza, Signature Place, 1010 Central Avenue, JMC Communities' Ovation and Opus South's 400 Beach Drive, just to name a few. There are almost as many mid-rise and townhome communities all within walking distance of downtown. There's even a downtown Publix. No wonder St. Pete was named "The Most Livable Community" by Partners for Livable Communities.
Many visitors to St. Pete may already know about the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, built in the 1920s, that's been redeveloped and is now a mainstay for locals as well as out-of-towners. Now we have Richard Kessler constructing the $150- million Grand Bohemian Hotel & Residences on the same downtown block as Progress Energy's new headquarters. The 32-story tower will include a 260- room hotel, 52 residential units and retail. The Kessler Group estimates the hotel will employ 150 to 200.
Lest you think downtown is all restaurants, condos and retail, you should take a look at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science at Bayboro Harbor, part of the largest gathering of marine science facilities in the Southeast. Those facilities employ 1,000 people. A big-time California research outfit, SRI International, just announced a new St. Petersburg location and a partnership with the college, which is just the boost St. Pete needed to expand marine sciences even further. Meanwhile, St. Petersburg College has completed its own downtown campus.
A lot of this development is the result of a decision decades ago to buy the city's entire waterfront. So even as development continues, the waterfront will remain green space -- one big public park.
My point to all this is simple: Don't be as unprepared as I was because we're all economic developers at some level. When somebody says, "Tell me about your city," business leaders should be prepared with a long list -- as well as a short list -- of why we're proud of our own communities. So if you haven't yet put together your lists, I encourage you to do so because you never know when you just might be the link to the next business expansion in your town. When you hear, "Tell me about your city," you need to be ready.