Like the endless days of sunshine, colorful and funky murals painting the city, the bustling downtown, and the glisten of lights on the water at night, the business community in St. Petersburg shines bright. Existing businesses that have relocated to St. Pete are prospering and expanding. Innovative startups are popping up and making their mark. Incubators bring together entrepreneurs of all stripes to support and learn from each other. Public areas are made more beautiful every day, with reinvestments into city spaces such as the St. Pete Pier. Working visual and performing artists elevate the city’s vibrance and strengthen its culture.
St. Pete is a city on the rise, evolving from its past as a sleepy beach town into a lively community. It is currently going through what many are calling a renaissance. Between the City of St. Petersburg investing in beautifying spaces, revitalizing the pier, and developing multiple residential projects, an already beautiful city is becoming an even more attractive place to call home.
What is happening in St. Pete’s business community is exciting on its own. What is happening behind the scenes and driving this success, however, is the truly inspiring part.
The sense of community and camaraderie, and the emphasis on equity and inclusion, are what define St. Pete. Business owners do not look at their neighbors as competition. They come together to compete against the rest of the world. Entities large and small collaborate, ranging from Pinellas County, the City, and the St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corporation to global corporate companies, higher education, statewide agencies, small businesses, and budding entrepreneurs.
Factor in the ample business-friendly incentives, taxes, and policies — along with outstanding quality of life with excellent weather, countless options of fun things to do, and affordable cost of living — and it is no wonder so many people and businesses choose St. Pete as their place to live, work and enjoy life.
Arts Light the Spark
Before St. Pete became this rising star, it had humble beginnings. The population was a bit older. The downtown district was slower. Professional opportunities were fewer. Everyday life in this city lacked today’s excitement and activity, until around the turn of the century. A tiny spark in an unexpected place—the arts—started the fire.
Helen French is deeply involved in the local arts scene, particularly in the performing arts. She is vice-chair of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, founding member of the St. Petersburg Dance Alliance and an adjunct professor of dance at St. Petersburg College.
French is also a St. Pete native. Her family has lived here for generations. She remembers her grandparents’ stories of an active downtown and cultural and artistic events going on in the city, but she does not remember seeing artists living and working here during her youth.
Pursuing her passion for dance at the Julliard School in New York City, French worked in the Big Apple from 1997 until 2009. She went through a reckoning of if she wanted to stay in NYC all her life or try somewhere else.
“I came back (to St. Pete) because I saw what was happening in visual arts,” she said.
With real estate in larger cities growing more expensive, the affordable St. Pete became more and more attractive in the ’90s. Drawn by the abundant sunshine and inspiration from the beauty around them, artists started to move in. Communities developed into districts popping up around the city, with more and more galleries opening, cultural events happening and creativity blossoming.
Those who resonated with St. Pete’s funky new culture started to join in. This thriving community inspired outside-the-box thinkers, people who innovate and create things from scratch, who take bold steps in new territory. These are the people who joined the St. Pete community
As the city shed its old skin, those who resonated with St. Pete’s funky new culture started to join in. This thriving community inspired outside-the-box thinkers, people who innovate and create things from scratch, who take bold steps in new territory. These are the people who joined the St. Pete community—and this unifying identity has only deepened since.
J.P. DuBuque, president & CEO of the St. Pete Area Economic Development Corporation, stresses the importance of the arts as not something that is merely nice to have, but rather an economic driver and part of life that is crucial to St. Pete’s identity.
“That culture of innovation and creativity was something that other folks found desirable. They wanted to be part of it,” DuBuque said. “From that, we’ve developed a thriving entrepreneur community, a thriving tech community, and frankly, we’re leading the state as far as the number and rate of millennials that are moving to our community.”
In other places, the arts are often a sign of economic prosperity, a lifestyle factor that complements healthy growth and development. In St. Pete, the arts are regarded in a completely different way.
“There’s a hunger for art in our community, from the public and the private sectors. They see how art can contribute positively to our communities, to our education, to the way our city looks—the murals on the walls to our cultural events,” French said.
A Place for All
Beyond support in the business realm, St. Pete is an extremely inclusive, equitable, and uplifting place for often marginalized communities. Leadership in St. Pete and the community as a whole are passionate allies of the LGBT community. St. Pete Pride is known to host the largest pride event in the Southeast and one of the largest in the country each June.
“There’s so much diversity and culture here, and there’s socioeconomical diversity, there’s racial diversity—those are all attractors for people to move here. They certainly were for my family,” French said.
These values are evident in the City’s actions to ensure equity across the entire community. Just one example:
The City of St. Petersburg is restoring the 22nd Street South corridor. The historically Black community thrived here in South St. Pete in the early 20th century, once hosting performances by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. The City is investing roughly $7.5 million to revitalize one mile along this corridor and develop housing, retail, and work space; a new park; safer pedestrian and bicycle crossings; and beautification to the city’s streets and public spaces.
In addition, the City offers many grants and incentives to support property owners, businesses, neighborhoods, residents, and youth, which often help not only recipients themselves, but the community at large.
Who We Are
Considering St. Pete’s population near 300,000 and Pinellas County’s status as Florida’s second most densely populated county, it may be surprising that there is a strong small-town feel here. Yet, that tight-knit unity could not be more real. Neighbors have a genuine desire to lift each other up.
“People here are approachable. I’ve walked into theaters and businesses and asked for sponsorships and support,” French said. “I have family ties and relationships that have evolved over generations, but I also think there are newcomers to the area without those ties, and I’ve seen them become successful.”
St. Pete’s welcoming nature was what stood out the most to Shirl Penney, founder, CEO and president and member of the Board of Directors of Dynasty Financial Partners. Penney and the rest of the Board sought to relocate Dynasty’s headquarters out of Manhattan in 2018, especially looking for lower costs of living and commute times, and more favorable tax environments and talent pools.
St. Pete not only had these qualities—outshining competition in terms of infrastructure and economics — but it also was, in itself, a great place to be.
“Each time we visited, we experienced the community ‘bear hug,’” he said. “The closeness of the community is incredibly inspiring and has motivated me to get more involved on a local level, which has led to a lot of great connections.”
Not only did the relocation pay off in terms of community feel, but Dynasty’s asset revenue, personnel and “basically everything across the board” has doubled since the move, Penney said. As for employees, the lack of income tax and cheaper living costs translated to what essentially is a 20%-25% raise.
“Each time we visited, we experienced the community 'bear hug.' The closeness of the community is incredibly inspiring and has motivated me to get more involved on a local level, which has led to a lot of great connections.”
St. Pete is also home to numerous large companies who have found great success here. These include Fortune 500 company Jabil, the Home Shopping Network and Raymond James Financial, the area’s largest private employer.
Small businesses feel the love, too.
Patti Bradfield is the proud owner of Pieces of a Dream gifts on Central Avenue in downtown. She has come to know the community well since she opened her quaint and eclectic shop full of home decor and Bohemian jewelry and apparel in November of 2016.
“My peers, other small business owners, everybody in our area refer each other and watch out for each other. We’re all friends. Customers come in and leave as friends,” she said. “It’s a city, but it feels like a small town.”
Beyond the feeling, real impacts come from this atmosphere of support.
“It is a draw for people to come here, because you have a voice to shape what’s happening, and that’s important I think if you’re looking for a community where to belong to,” French said. “St. Pete feels like that to me, but it’s not easy. I don’t think it’s easy anywhere. You still have to do the work, but it’s work that can be done. It’s not like a pipe dream.”
Where We Want to Be
Dynasty Financial is one of several finance companies to move to St. Pete in recent years. Investment adviser ARK Investment Management moved its corporate headquarters to St. Pete in November 2021, with groundbreaking for the ARK Innovation Center planned for the first quarter of 2022.
Tech companies such as CodeBoxx Technology, a provider of education and training for professionals in technology, and CrossBorder Solutions, which specializes in technology-driven tax solutions, are bringing their headquarters downtown. Both are hiring hundreds of locals. Tampa Bay Wave is partnering with USF to launch a new, 90-day accelerator focusing on fintech, with the first programming coming to USF’s St. Pete campus in 2022.
These are only some of the recent developments, relocations, and projects.
Locally based finance and fintech companies follow in the trailblazing footsteps of a firm well known in Greater Tampa Bay and far beyond—Raymond James Financial. The company made a bold choice 60-70 years ago, choosing to remain based in St. Pete when so many other wealth companies were headed to Wall Street. Raymond James started the momentum for GTB’s evolution into a center for fintech that rivals even the likes of Silicon Valley. Forbes ranked GTB the nation’s No. 1 emerging tech city in 2021.
A significant factor in reaching this status is St. Pete’s Innovation District, located south of downtown along the Tampa Bay waterfront. Established in 2016, this district includes more than 30 organizations that comprise an innovative ecosystem across cluster industries.
Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Pete Innovation District, said St. Pete and Tampa Bay’s big-city amenities with a mid-sized city approachability make it very favorable for entrepreneurs.
“We have a growing innovation ecosystem that engages new entrants. We have a strong talent pipeline from numerous local colleges and universities, as well as the more experienced workforce who have built their careers locally or recently relocated and are looking for challenges. We have a variety of entrepreneur support organizations where an entrepreneur can find the right fit for their situation,” Barlow said.
This article by Jewell Tomazin and Jen Clark originally appeared in Guide to Greater Tampa Bay.