The Public-Private Partnership’s Upperhand: Q&A with the St. Pete Chamber’s Chris Steinocher

Chris Steinocher, President & CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corporation (EDC) gives us an inside look at the EDC-Chamber partnership and talks the future of business and economic development in the ‘Burg.

Chris Steinocher, President & CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corporation

Tell us about life, 'Pre-Chamber and how you came to fall in love with the Sunshine City.

I grew up in Atlanta and graduated from Emory University in 1986. My first job out of college was with NCR Corporation where I was almost immediately transferred to cover the Florida territory and asked to choose between Miami, Orlando and Tampa Bay. We used to visit relatives down here for vacations so the Tampa-St. Pete market was an easy pick.

I started living in Tampa but didn’t find my tribe until Juli (now my wife) and I came down to the Mainsail Arts Festival. We got lost driving home and ended up riding along Coffee Pot Bayou and quickly fell in love with the entire vibe and feel of St. Pete. Shortly after, Juli and I bought our first home near Crescent Lake and have been in that neighborhood now for over 30 years.

My career with NCR was cut short when they wanted me to move back to Atlanta and they were surprised I had no interest in coming home. Secret was – I  found my new forever home here in St. Pete.

So, here I am a young guy with no job and a crazy love for this city. Someone told me “you love this city so much, you should work for the St. Pete Chamber.” With that, I gave it a shot and was lucky to land an entry level job in 1990 working in the Visitors Center making minimum wage, but doing what I loved.

That’s when it all came together. I found people like me that really cared about our neighbors, our businesses, this city’s bones and this naturally beautiful environment.  At that time, all working on big efforts (re-opening the Vinoy and building "The dome"). They saw what I saw – the coolest place on earth with all the potential in the world.

In 1994 I had the opportunity to be part of the start-up Tampa Bay Partnership where I spent 17 years promoting the entire MSA. The Partnership is where I learned that each city in this region has a unique role, value system and vision for their community. It’s too where I learned “The Art of Convening” to ensure all voices are heard and consensus created. When I was offered the lead role back here at the Chamber in 2011, I jumped at the chance.

Why are you so passionate about continuing to grow and strengthen the business community in St. Pete?

I'm passionate about the people creating our business community, working in those businesses and patronizing those businesses. They are the dreamers, the makers, the artists, the engineers and scientists willing to invest their time and treasure on their personal dream. It’s the promise that everyone can contribute his or her gifts and talents that I’m passionate about.

We can quickly forget about the human aspect – we tend to look at NAIC codes, and speak in terms of industry clusters, almost forgetting these are the people that will be living next to us, teaching us, protecting us, caring for us. Once you make it personal, the tone and tenor of conversations change – and then real business gets done.

Why does the EDC exist and how does the Chamber fit in? 

Every great city has an EDC – and it was over 30 years since we last had one here. When we were rebuilding the Chamber, most conversations were about our economic development strategy. And while we were doing some things wonderfully, well, we were not looking at the entire community and the holistic issues to address each and any job we’d create.

From those conversations “Grow Smarter” was born– a community strategy to ensure we all were on the same trajectory for our community’s growth. We set priorities as a community: Entrepreneur growth, safety, neighborhoods and districts, education and training. We quickly realized while we have many organizations doing great things to help us grow – there was no one assigned to be outside of St. Pete, telling our story for those wanting to bring good jobs to our city.

The time, climate and leadership was right for us to stand-up our own St. Pete EDC.

How is the EDC’s mission different from the Chamber?

It’s a simple differential. The St. Pete EDC is responsible to ensure our city sees a growth in new businesses and new jobs being created here. Once those businesses are here, it’s the job of the Chamber to ensure they have the opportunity to flourish.

Our leadership worked hard to ensure there was indeed a unique mission– no duplication of efforts would be tolerated to ensure the resources in this community were efficiently and effectively utilized.

How does each organization complement one another? 

While our boards are designed to be separate entities, our bylaws connect us through shared board members, shared back office resources and space as well.  We are on the same page of the vision for this city and our strategies support each other’s successes.

Why invest in the St. Petersburg EDC and the St. Petersburg Chamber?

It’s the right time to invest in organizations focused on our economic momentum. While much has been accomplished, we are nowhere near done yet.

More than ever, we want to be sure our city continues to have organizations focused on caring for the business climate.  We need more businesses involved, sharing their dreams, voices, and resources. The success of our two organizations will only enhance each business growing in St. Pete.

"Now with our team of organizations and our city leadership working so closely together – we can be nimble, innovative and caring for our future together. After all, that is the St. Pete Way."

How do the efforts of the EDC allow St. Pete to compete with other communities?

Before the EDC – the world was generally unaware of St. Pete's story. The marketing and outreach efforts of our EDC now place us on the stage for the entire world to see. Most people have no idea of the capabilities of our city – in fact they are quite blown away when they arrive here to see the surprise of St Pete. Every business has a business development division, ensuring a pipeline of activity, and now, with our EDC, our city has a very robust pipeline of businesses interested in growing here.

How does the EDC align with Community Partner Organizations? 

Economic Development is a team sport. The opportunity we’ve been given is to build an economic development ecosystem from whole cloth. While many cities struggle with legacy organizations holding tight to their perceived role in a community – our Chamber, City, EDC, and Grow Smarter were built to rely on the others' successes.

We have established clear roles and expectation for our efforts and work closely with many organizations throughout Tampa-St. Pete and all of Florida. The Grow Smarter convenings allow all of our partner organizations to regularly come together to share successes, roadblocks and their, "What’s next strategies."

Is it working?

The best part of this effort has been the quick and sustained successes of the EDC itself. It’s not a secret that you get what you focus on and I’m proud of the nearly 700 jobs we’ve helped bring to the market. I’m even more optimistic for our future when I see a pipeline report with the amount of interest we’ve generated – We have only just begun.

Tell us about your vision for the future of St. Pete. 

My job provides me with a very unique view of our city, so the future I see becomes brighter every day. I see so many opportunities on the horizon for us to continue to enhance our St. Pete story. From the Skyway Marina District to the Carillon business district we still have so many places to grow.

Our 86-acre Trop Site offers us an amazing opportunity to build the downtown of the future. We’ve built the type of community attractive to the workforce we all desire. But, just as any world-class city, we will have our challenges as we grow. Now with our team of organizations and our city leadership working so closely together – we can be nimble, innovative and caring for our future together. After all, that is the St. Pete Way.

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Interested in opportunities to engage or learn more about the EDC? Visit https://stpeteedc.com/investors-edc/

To learn more about the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, visit https://www.stpete.com/