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Catalyze 2023: Cynthia Johnson, Pinellas County Economic Development

Veronica Brezina



Cynthia Johnson, director of Pinellas County Economic Development. Photo provided.

We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2023 and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2023.

St. Pete native Cynthia Johnson, who has a wealth of knowledge in the inclusive development space, is charged with helping Pinellas County businesses create equitable sustainability – whether it be needed infrastructure or sourcing talent. 

Johnson holds the title of the director of the Pinellas County Economic Development department. Oftentimes, she could be seen at breakfast meetings in St. Petersburg and afternoon gatherings in Tarpon Springs and elsewhere, networking throughout the county. 

“I truly believe it is critical to engage with the community and stakeholders throughout the 24 municipalities we cover,” said Johnson, who typically has two to five meetings daily. “We do more than only recruiting companies – we introduce them to the talent supply chain and executive environment.” 

While actively connecting with movers and shakers, Johnson works with Enterprise Florida and Global Tampa Bay on bringing international attention to the county. She also periodically meets with St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch to discuss upcoming projects, with the redevelopment of Tropicana Field/Gas Plant District currently at the top of list. 

Johnson has a personal connection to the area, as her grandparents grew up in the former Gas Plant neighborhood, making a living by selling coffee. 

“The Gas Plant redevelopment has to honor, recognize and respect the past in a tangible fashion and not only in the form of statues and people having businesses at the site. There’s work for designers and civil engineers who can partake in an apprenticeship program,” Johnson said.

In terms of also focusing on job creation, Johnson said the county’s $80 million Employment Sites Program (ESP) is a significant asset in the toolbelt to incentivize projects. 

The program, which started in 2021, draws on earmarked Penny for Pinellas sales tax funding to provide the grants. The grants are available for developers or businesses that need help to close a funding gap to make a project financially viable. 

“While this is a county-wide program, in rounds two and three, $8.7 million has been committed to St. Pete construction projects alone,” Johnson said. 

The application period for the fourth round of the ESP program will close on Jan. 17. 

She listed new projects on the rise that the county has supported via Penny for Pinellas dollars, the ESP and other resources, including the mixed-use Orange Station at the Edge project, which will introduce new Class A office space – a resource the community has lacked in the past 20 years; the Tampa Bay Innovation Center that ARK will be anchoring; and expansion projects at the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

“As a St. Pete native, I’m pleased to see the evolution occurring in where in the community and it is becoming a place where my granddaughter would want to live. It’s not only fulfilling, but it drives my obligation to make sound decisions on investments,” Johnson said.

“Let us not forget remote working. The pandemic put this on steroids. People have an increasing freedom to live anywhere they want. Where do they want to live? In places that have a high quality of life. In 2023, PCED will have a ‘citizen focus’ economic development strategy where we are intentional about creating quality of place, improved public services and investing in the infrastructure and our people.”

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    Carl Hebinck

    December 30, 2022at3:35 pm

    Hi Ms. Johnson:

    It was bold of you to put out your invitation to us citizens to “provide ideas on how to make St. Petersburg a better place to live.” I think you’ll be inundated with ideas. Hope I won’t take too much of your time in reading mine.

    My idea is solely on building “affordabe housing” in half the time, at half the cost and producing half the green-house gases normally produced by housing–in So. St. Pete.

    I was struck by an advanced housing construction idea I volunteerd for in Haiti after the terrible Earthquake. The building system was chosen by engineers because it is the best to resist the forces of nature like earthquakes and hurricanes. We got guys from off the street to help us. I was amazed at how simple the system was and fast to assemble. It took but 5 days to completely build the houses, walls, roofs, windows, doors, interior partitions–everything. [Such a house being built can be seen on youtube an 8:47 min video THE FUTURE OF RESIDENTIAL HOUSING.] Since my experiences in Haiti I’ve dedicated myself to finding out if these safe attractive houses could be built here–“affordably.” Because the panels do cost more than stick-framing.

    After these years, I’ve found out how. It’s building them as a nonprofit, near where they’re needed, using local talent. A Workshop could be put up [on donated land 35′ x 100′]–in So. St. Pete where the opportunity exists.
    About 3 years ago the City Council took on the Nimby’s and dedicated 9,617 more backyard lots to building affordabe ADU houses. They expected builders would run at the chance to build them. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. Why? Conventional builders are in it for the money. And in the same amount of time they can make “real” money building luxury homes. They see little profit in “affordable” housing. And besides, government pays the difference that low-income Section 8 persons need to move into something decent. Even the City of St. Pete gives bonuses of $500 a month to its employees to live within the City. This costs 1.4 million dollars a year–and if it goes 10 years, $14 million in tax dollars. Sounds like we’re subsidizing luxury home builders doesn’t it?
    But…I’m just the guy with the plan and willingness to execute it. I don’t have the money. I don’t know if Penny for Pinellas could support this? It would be nice though to have the opportunity to lay it out before you and your team to see what you think.

    Respectfully, Carl Hebinck, Veteran, Retired residential builder, Volunteer and Hopeful Partner with you in doing something that matters. Safe affordable housing in half the time, at half the cost, with half the GHG’s.

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