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Chamber celebrates St. Pete’s diversity, developments

Veronica Brezina

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Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Steinocher at The Factory during a chamber event in 2021. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

The Factory came alive Wednesday night, powered by a 1,300-person strong crowd gathered for the St Petersburg Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting.

Artists, stiltwalkers, jugglers, dancers and musicians roamed the 91,000-square-foot facility as Chamber leaders lauded the community’s progress over the last year, and looked forward to the coming one. 

“I truly believe we are in Year One of a 10-year golden age,” local businessman and former Chair Ryan Griffin said onstage.

Griffin wears many hats in the community from being an attorney to a restauranteur, real estate investor and a civic leader. He has a major focus on the Grow Smarter Strategy, a partnership between the Chamber of Commerce and the City of St. Pete.

He and the Chamber members reiterated their message, “Be here now,” embracing the road of progress St. Pete is on and efforts the city is making to grow efficiently. 

Onstage, Griffin introduced Dr. Sandra Braham, the first African-American woman to become Chair of the Chamber. 

Braham quickly stepped in the role several months ago when the former Chair, Dr. Sridhar Sundaram, accepted a new role in California. 

Dr. Sandra Braham 2022 Chamber of Commerce Chair.

“During that time, I was able to see her incredible leadership and dedication to this chamber to all of its members and our city,” Griffin said. “That’s something that has stuck in my mind is we are in good hands with her. 

“I had to step up about six months early and people said, ‘why do you get to do so long a term? You did six months and now you have a whole 12 months.’ I said, ‘It’s for reparations,’” Braham said as the crowd cheered.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, who is also making history as the first Black mayor of St. Pete, reflected on the goals and future plans of the city. 

“We have made such great progress in 34 days of our administration,” Welch said, explaining he has met with legislators in Tallahassee and elsewhere to discuss issues St. Pete is facing or can improve on, like housing and making St. Pete affordable for everyone. 

“The beauty is the way it becomes together,” Welch continued. “We are tired of the nonsense in our country. I think we can show in St. Pete how we can get it done by working together on progress and not by whether you are red or blue, but how to move our city forward [regardless of political parties].”

He also talked about the future of the Rays and Tropicana Field. 

“I know Tropicana Field is on everybody’s mind, but we can’t solve that issue until we have a relationship with the Rays and know what they are dealing with,” Welch said, adding how the city and county are working towards building a stronger relationship with the Rays. 

“We are going to have Team St. Pete and Team Pinellas take our best swing at keeping the Rays here,” Welch said. 

The Chamber also announced its Member of the Year: Jessica Eilerman, co-manager of the St. Pete Greenhouse.

Chamber President and CEO Chris Steinocher commended Eilerman on working with small businesses during the pandemic when they needed the most help.

“There are not very many people in the country doing this where a chamber and a city come together and really focus on economic development,” Greenhouse co-manager Kim Vogel. “We are doing that open business at a time and making sure our businesses grow,” 

In 2019, the St. Pete Greenhouse started St. Pete Pitch Night and thus far has given away $29,000 to small businesses.

Cope Notes founder Johnny Crowder, who won $5,000 from St. Pete Pitch Night. “This was a pivotal point in my journey. I was able to hire people. I almost started crying on the Zoom call,” Crowder said.

Crowder founded Cope Notes, a mental health support service, through his own personal experience as a suicide and abuse survivor. 

Cope Notes most recently received the People’s Choice Award at the Startup of the Year Summit. 

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