Mayor Rick Kriseman and City of St. Petersburg staff hosted a virtual State of the Economy presentation Wednesday that highlighted the strength and resilience that have helped St. Pete weather the Covid-19 crisis better than many other comparable cities.
City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle kicked off the event with an overview of the economy’s pre-pandemic performance. From 2019 to 2020, Delisle said, the city improved in 41 out of 43 key economic indicators. “We had a good strong economy basically functioning on all cylinders,” he said, adding that in 10 out of 15 indicators, St. Pete performed better than half of its peer cities.
The Sunshine City’s economic performance also paced that of the entire Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan statistical area (MSA), a classification used by the U.S. Census Bureau. DeLisle pointed out that St. Pete did “better than the MSA” in 12 out of 14 indicators. Pre-Covid, the MSA’s numbers were improving “because of St. Pete’s strengths. We were on a roll.”
The pandemic slowed that roll, but DeLisle said a rapidly diversifying market has been vital to St. Pete’s resilience during the crisis, with a much wider range of businesses contributing to the economy.
“The more that play, the better, stronger and more diverse our economy is,” he said. “If we were just a hospitality-based economy, like maybe we were five or 10 years ago, we would have been in a lot more trouble during the pandemic.”
The economic buoyancy provided by St. Pete has helped the MSA move up, not down, in the Urban Land Institute’s top U.S. markets to watch. Last year, the region finished just outside the top 10 at No. 11; this year, it’s at No. 6. (The top five are Raleigh/Durham, N.C.; Austin, Texas; Nashville; Dallas/Fort Worth; and Charlotte, N.C.)
“Look at that,” DeLisle said, “we are in the major leagues. We’re playing with some major competition.”
Covid-19, however, “hit us and hit us hard,” DeLisle said. “We all got impacted.”
Small businesses were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but again, St. Pete proved resilient. DeLisle’s research found that small business employment dropped by about 3.5 percent between the second quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020. Statewide, that number was 16 percent, he said.
“We’ve got to keep our eye on that,” DeLisle said. “We’ve got to look at our numbers next year, which will bring more clarity, but it is an early indicator that maybe we did better than most.”
DeLisle also talked about the city’s efforts to improve economic equity, particularly in south St. Pete. He highlighted Deuces Rising, an initiative to revitalize the 22nd St. S. corridor, as well as equitable redevelopment criteria that were required of the design firms that submitted proposals for remaking the Tropicana Field property.
Much work remains to be done to lift up the city’s Black community, but DeLisle pointed out several signs of progress. First and foremost, the median income for African-American households has risen by 28 percent over the past five years. That’s better than both Tampa and ULI darling Raleigh/Durham, Delisle said. A declining poverty level is another trend to cheer.
“The poverty rate in St. Pete is very low compared to our peers,” DeLisle said. “It spiked with the pandemic and so there’s no rest for the weary. We’ve got a lot of work to do … but the poverty rate change over the last five years is the best amongst our peers.”
The poverty gap between white and Black residents has also narrowed, DeLisle noted, falling from 23 percent to 8 percent since 2014. “Significant progress has been made,” he said. “We’re very happy to see that.”
Mayor Kriseman closed out the presentation by thanking the city’s 3,500 employees. “The positives — and there were many — you saw today in this presentation are a direct result of the dedication, the commitment and the hard work of the entire city team,” he said.
The term-limited Kriseman is in his last full year in office and used the State of the Economy as a valedictory, of sorts, for his stewardship of the economy.
“Everything that we have focused on since my administration began has been on trying to create a city that had a very diverse economy and was diverse in general,” he said, “whether it’s diversity of jobs, diversity of the industries that we have and, equally important, a diversity in the people that make up our community, and trying to be more resilient. So that when we had things happen that we didn’t anticipate — and here we are in 2021 having just gone through, and hopefully nearing, the end of dealing with the pandemic — we’ve been able to have an economy where our businesses can survive.”
Kriseman acknowledged that small businesses continue to struggle and unemployment is a drag on the economy, but he sees signs that, when Covid-19 is in the rearview mirror, the city will hit the ground running as opposed to “trying to dig ourselves out of the ditch caused by the pandemic.” He cited the years-in-the-making debut of the new St. Pete Pier, the proliferation of museums and visual and performing arts events and big investments in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area as “groundbreaking” milestones for sustained economic development.
“Even with Covid, I sit here today and I am incredibly optimistic about the future of St. Petersburg, the economic vitality of St. Petersburg and the people of St. Petersburg,” Kriseman said. “I couldn’t be prouder of where we’re at. I am truly excited about the future of this city. We have a lot of work to do going forward. There’s still a lot we want to accomplish, certainly during my time and thereafter, but our trajectory is up.”