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Community Voices: Lessons from an Austinite

Tim Raines

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Downtown Austin, Texas. Photo: visitaustin.com.

Zillow recently reported that Tampa Bay has surpassed Austin, Texas for hottest housing market. This may be no surprise for many longtime residents that love the Tampa Bay area, but having seen the rise of Austin firsthand and still one to consider it my “home,” despite having left full time in 2015, it wasn’t until around 2018 that I started to see the same potential in St. Petersburg.

Checking out the amazing Indie Flea while enjoying a Green Bench brew on that typically beautiful Florida day, I stated to a friend that St. Petersburg was then what Austin was in the ’90s – the “dotcom” era – the point in time where Austin went from a small college town to a technology boomtown. 

Later that day, I posted to my Austin and Tampa Bay social circles that I believed St. Pete to be on the verge of greatness and it has not disappointed. In fact, with this recent statement by Zillow, St. Pete may be well ahead of the trajectory that Austin continues to enjoy. Even between 2018 and the Zillow news, we’ve seen other significant signs of long-term growth with relocations such as Ark Investment Management and the establishment of the Innovation District with a strong roster of partners and companies.

The projection that St Pete will experience a long-term growth surge, may not be welcome news to many, just as many Austinites begrudge the growth of their beloved city and their inability to “Keep Austin Weird.” No matter where you stand on the issue of growth, it is going to happen and The Burg is going to change. Now is the time for visionary leaders to define what the city should be and take some very valuable lessons from other cities that have gone before.

How do Austin and St. Pete compare and what can we learn?

Culture. Generally speaking, the pre-dotcom Austin was very laid back, largely liberal, and had a strong intellectual hippie vibe. Austin’s location was also rather unique among the large cities of Texas – surrounded by lakes and the beautiful hill country. In the early days of the dotcom boom, there appeared to be strong interest in marketing the city and lifestyle, though the more liberal city council dragged their feet on the infrastructure to support growth. “Keep Austin Weird” became the unofficial slogan for the city, which was adopted by the creative and emerging wealthier tech community. Less supportive of the inevitable outcome of growth was “Don’t Dallas My Austin,” indicating disdain for the growing wealth and gentrification as the tech money flowed into the city.

St. Petersburg seems to have an altogether different dynamic and perhaps a better foundation for success. Once referred to as “God’s waiting room,” it appears that the creative class has been the group that has suddenly emerged, both locally grown but perhaps also from elsewhere, just seeking a unique and affordable place to live and create. The wealth component has always existed and the two seem to work very well together in creating and supporting the arts.

It would appear to me that St. Petersburg has a better culture to facilitate smart growth over the long term if these working relationships are maintained and a strong vision is established for The Burg.

In terms of the cultural arts, each city has its advantages. I truly miss the live music scene in Austin, it is difficult to top. However, as a professional visual artist, I found Austin a great place to create and did my initial sales in the town, but as my prices rose, I’ve found a more receptive audience of buyers in Florida. This is true for two other artist friends in Austin who make the bulk of their income from California and Florida each year. The visual arts in St. Petersburg have been well supported through strong organizations such as the Warehouse Arts District Association and the Arts Alliance, along with the Morean, Florida Craft Arts and others. Even if you are not involved in the community, the evidence through support for street art is overwhelming.

St. Petersburg also enjoys a more robust collection of museums such as The James, The Dali, Museum of Fine Arts, and the new museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement, and a strong performing arts scene.

Livability and Opportunity. Austin has the hill country, lakes and expansive green spaces. With a fairly tolerable weather pattern. St. Pete has the bay and beaches but seems limited in natural green spaces. As far as development potential is concerned, Austin is fairly well hemmed in by the hills and lakes to the west, though urban sprawl has made its way north, south and east and it appears it can still grow west for those who can tolerate long commutes.

St. Petersburg is unique in that it is essentially closed to sprawl. Development must be urban infill, meaning the value of the land will continue to rise and with smart city planning should become more walkable and more accessible to residents. The total land area of St. Petersburg is only about six times the size of Manhattan – and two times smaller than Austin.

In 2007, in the Austin Business Journal, I reported on the strain creatives were feeling due to encroaching development, rising costs and risk to the small businesses that drew them to the more dynamic and inspiring parts of Austin. When considering the current situation for St. Pete, it appears that creatives have a slightly better outlook on the potential, despite the rising costs of housing and other similar effects of growth.

It appears that St. Petersburg city officials and the business and development communities at large are slightly more keen to keep the creative class engaged and involved, though now is the time to plan for the next 20 years to ensure The Burg is livable for all.

Making our Future

I’ve seen one possible outcome for the future of St. Petersburg and I’m “all in.” It is a bit unnerving to be on a house hunt at the moment, and I’ve already been engaged for several years in the startup community and volunteering but I will be stepping up my investment in The Burg and tell anyone that will listen to do the same. The next 10 to 20 years will bring better housing, better dining, better art, more jobs, more innovation and better opportunities for those who call St. Petersburg home or want to join us in guiding it to be the city others will emulate.

For the city leaders from both the public and private sectors, I would still encourage visits to Austin, like so many others do, but go in with a different perspective than most cities do on those visits. Go in with the understanding that while there is much to learn, St. Petersburg is on the way to surpassing Austin on many more fronts than simply housing demand. Leverage St. Petersburg’s own personality and unique opportunities, and there is little doubt that St. Petersburg will be the city of choice, now and into the future.

Tim Raines is founder and CEO of Rare Innovation

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    David Hosler

    January 25, 2022at7:30 pm

    The music scene in the Bay Area is incredible. Having spent time in both Austin and Nashville I believe the Bay Area offers amazing shows and incredibly talented musicians. This area is quickly becoming a huge influencer in the music world. The next few years are going to reveal the musical strength and personality that will drive commerce and performance art in a whole new direction!

  2. Tim Raines

    Tim Raines

    January 26, 2022at9:39 am

    Glad to hear. Who do you think is leading the charge? I’ve been glad to see “local” extensions of the Allman Brothers family continuing in the area and while not in Tampa Bay, Ben Prestage is a phenomenal Florida talent that with Florida inspired music (swampgrass) that a friend at ACL called, one of the last true American musicians he’s heard in a while. This area will boom, there is no doubt.

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