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Art, business, economic development collide on the Mahaffey stage

Margie Manning

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The Mahaffey Theater's main stage hosted the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and leaders in the arts community (from left): Mark Cantrell, president and CEO, The Florida Orchestra; Alex Harris, CEO and co-founder, Arts Conservancy for Teens; and Liz Dimmitt, founder, Fairgrounds

The arts are a driving force for economic growth in St. Petersburg.

Art attracts businesses and their employees to the city and leads to innovation and new career paths, leaders from The Florida Orchestra, Fairgrounds and Arts Conservatory for Teens told members of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership Tuesday.

Mark Cantrell, president and CEO, The Florida Orchestra

“When businesses or people are looking to move to a community — especially those with universities or white collar or high-tech or other intellectual-type businesses, pharmaceutical, healthcare — those are people who value the arts. They’re not going to move to a city or a community that does not have great art,” said Mark Cantrell, president and CEO of the Florida Orchestra. “So it is one of our goals to demonstrate to our community that you can’t attract businesses or the employees they are looking for unless you have an active arts scene.”

In St. Petersburg, the creative arts and design industry —one of the five pillars of the city’s Grow Smarter economic development strategy — produced 4,200 jobs in 2018, or about 3.5 percent of the total jobs in the city. In the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area, there were about 7,000 independent artists, writers and performers last year, generating an estimated $132 million in revenue.

Liz Dimmitt hopes to further bolster the arts economy with two projects. She is the founder of Fairgrounds, a collection of artists coming together to create an immersive art experience.  Fairgrounds will occupy 12,000-square-feet at The Factory. The Factory, a partnership between Dimmitt, Kara and Jordan Behar and Behar & Peteranecz Architecture, is being developed on a six-acre industrial campus in south St. Petersburg, near the Warehouse Arts District.

Liz Dimmitt, founder, Fairgrounds

The 90,000-square-foot Factory will have food, dance, craft beer, coffee and unique experiences, Dimmitt said.

“Smart businesses who want to attract quality employees and customers are going to have their businesses there,” she said. “There will be an organic community that celebrates the art and culture that we already have here, but it’s bringing them together in one area.”

The Arts Conservatory for Teens in St. Petersburg is helping grow the talent that innovative businesses need, said Alex Harris, co-founder and CEO.

ACT started as a three-year pilot program in 2009 in Midtown with 30 students who were struggling academically. Last year, ACT served more than 2,100 students throughout Pinellas County.

The program does more than prepare professional artists, Harris said. He compared it to a farm team for the business community.

Alex Harris, co-founder and CEO, Arts Conservatory for Teens

“It helps increase their competitive advantage. When you talk about innovation, it is the creative mind that is at the helm of innovation. If we want to see more innovation in the community and in our businesses, I think the investment into the arts and into the creative environment is where it is,” Harris said.

The Downtown Partnership program was held on the main stage at The Mahaffey Theater-Duke Energy Center for the Arts, and hosted by the Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts. Bill Edwards, whose company, Big3 Entertainment, manages the city-owned facility, raised the issue of funding for the arts. Edwards is a noted philanthropist and wants to see others follow suit.

“My concern is that the generation we have in this city has to be encouraged to start becoming philanthropists themselves. Even if it’s a small amount of money, get them used to supporting the arts,” Edwards said. “All of you have to chip in and encourage other people to chip in or we will lose our arts.”

Bill Edwards

Cantrell said Edwards was more than a donor. He called Edwards an investor in the community.

“When you talk to people about contributing to the arts, help us in our mission of changing their mindset from being just a check you are writing for a tax deduction to an investment in the community,” Cantrell said.

Dimmitt, who described herself as a capitalist and an entrepreneur, also said she considers her financial contributions as investments.

“All these arts organizations have hundreds, thousands of employees that are probably your customers, but they’re also educating the next group of your employees,” she said. “Investing in the arts as a business leader is how I see our community growing the fastest … It’s not just straight philanthropy. Have strategic partnerships with arts organizations. Invest in them. You’ll get a return on those dollars.”

Harris urged the business community to come together to find creative ways to support the arts, such as inviting employees to chip in on gifts to arts groups.

The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership is working with other downtown organizations from across Florida on a statewide initiative that would give cities the resources to help build capacity for nonprofit arts organizations.

“This is more than just a one-time allocation – it is a fundamental shift in the way we think about art funding and economic development,” Jason Mathis, CEO, said in a letter to members.

The organization hopes to have a legislative strategy that it will deploy on over the next few legislative sessions.

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