Published by Margie Manning, St. Pete Catalyst, December 18, 2018
Tropicana Field site redevelopment, marine science, art and commercial real estate are on the agenda for the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.
The partnership’s board determined those priorities and others during a retreat last week, said Jason Mathis, CEO.
“The way St. Petersburg grows over the next decade will set a trajectory for our future as a city,” Mathis said. “The public sector will do a really good job of trying to manage that. The private sector will try to maximize profit. But having an advocacy group like the Partnership who can help to improve that development process — that’s really important.”
The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization with a mission to serve as a catalyst for projects and investments in the urban core, hired Mathis over the summer, luring him away from the Downtown Alliance in Salt Lake City, where he was executive director. Since starting work here in August, Mathis has spent his first weeks on the job talking with business and community leaders to get their perspectives.
At the Dec. 13 board retreat, he spelled out a to-do list that includes his own priorities — increased communication, including a greater engagement with social media, investments in urban research and more structure around membership — and asked the board to choose from a list of others.
The board picked additional action items for a multi-year agenda:
Play a constructive role in the redevelopment of Tropicana Field. “We want to support the city and the Rays and bring some outside urban development expertise to the thinking about how that site gets developed. We’re not the developers, we don’t own any property there, we’re not going to invest in anything there, but as a community organization that cares about urban development, we can play a constructive and collaborative role in what happens with that site.”
Be good storytellers for marine science. “We have world-renowned marine science players here. All these scientists are doing what they do best, valuable work, but there hasn’t been anyone tasked with corralling those narratives and sharing that story more broadly. Given the long history we have working with College of Marine Science and with the U.S. Geological Survey, I’d like us to play a prominent role in telling the marine science story on a local, regional and national level. I don’t know what that looks like yet … We’re not the scientists, but we can be a really good cheerleader for that segment of our economy.”
Public support for art. “What I learned during my conversations with people is this is a community that really values art. People said, we’ve built our culture and our sense of identity and in some ways our economy on the backs of artists, but there hasn’t been a dedicated public funding mechanism to support art … I would like our organization to think about art as an economic development driver and make the case for ongoing public support that’s dedicated so artists know year to year we can count on this. … I see this as a powerful economic driver because it builds on a strength we already have that has been underfunded in the past.”
Commercial real estate. Vacancy rates are at a 20-year low and lease rates are at a 20-year high for downtown office buildings, but there’s a challenge with building new Class A office space. A building takes about three years to construct, but most companies have a shorter timeline for relocation decisions, so a developer planning a new structure most likely has to build on speculation, yet few banks will provide funding without committed tenants and signed leases.
In addition, the cost of new construction is in the mid $40s per square foot, while the going rate in downtown St. Pete right now is under $35 a square foot.
Mathis doesn’t have an immediate solution, but he and the Downtown Partnership board agreed that it’s a priority issue to address.
In November, the organization spoke out against a proposed study of linkage fees, which are fees imposed on new development to support affordable housing. While agreeing that affordable housing is a critical need in the community, it also said a fee on development is the wrong approach.
“St Petersburg is already incentivizing office space development because there is not sufficient demand at a high enough price point for developers to build new office space. Adding an additional fee will not make it easier or less expensive to build new work spaces for St. Pete’s residents. New commercial projects will help provide additional jobs and spur wage growth,” Mathis wrote in a letter to the City Council.
The Downtown Partnership also will continue to focus on the Innovation District, the Downtown Looper, University of South Florida consolidation, and property management for the U.S. Geological Survey, which provides much of the organization’s revenue, Mathis said.
The Partnership has been around since 1962, and since then has played key roles in establishing USF St. Petersburg and bringing the U.S. Geological Survey to the area, and its future is rooted in those historic accomplishments.
“As a small nonprofit organization that’s not dependent on membership revenue, we’re able to think long-term about strategic interventions we can make. We’re interested in our members’ success, but we’re more interested in long-term community prosperity. We have the size and the flexibility and the financial resources to be thinking long term,” Mathis said.