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Community Voices: The city’s best is yet to come

Barclay Harless

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Bank executive Barclay Harless shares his 2024 predictions for the Sunshine City. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

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St. Petersburg is an inclusive city of lifestyle and commerce for over a quarter of a million people. And as I’ve said for the past few years, I think that number will continue to grow, particularly given our location in Florida’s sunshine-filled, business-friendly environment.

Even my bullish 2021 predictions ended up being very conservative given the national attention, migration and growth from 2021-2023, which makes me very confident in my 2024 forecast for the city.

St. Pete has been remarkably original since its inception on Leap Day in 1892. Since then, it has developed a unique balance for local/small businesses and residential lifestyle, all emanating from the heart of downtown. I hear idle speculation on why St. Pete is “hip, cool, funky,” as if it’s by random chance. It isn’t. Below I explain why the core of St. Pete causes this success and leads to my optimism for 2024.

There are four central factors at play here: favorable local/small business climate, an increase in more residential living, the walkability factor (lending itself to the lifestyle), and the Gas Plant District developments. This balanced combination of commerce and downtown living makes St. Pete one of the best, sunniest and most business-friendly places in the US.

Downtown St. Pete enjoys a specific balance – having equal space for commercial and residential growth alike, all while keeping an exceptionally local feel. This balance of business and residential spaces helps maintain the walkability and lifestyle aspects our city is recognized for. Some other cities in the region are still working to rebalance their downtown from being business-only.

Notice all the awards and recognition St. Pete rightfully earns, usually containing some of the following words: lifestyle, walkability, bike-able, small businesses and distinct neighborhoods. These aspects are what people who live and move here want most, and we do them well.

What makes it work so well is that downtown is the center of gravity for the city. Its “flow” is very linear, emanating from the center, making residential living and foot navigation easy. We’ve managed to avoid the hodgepodge development style that contributes to chaotic sprawl in other cities.

We also aren’t “Suburbia Gone Wild,” as almost a third of the total jobs in St. Pete are located downtown – and nearly 40% of the creative jobs, too. And those numbers are growing. In fact, according to the “financial nerds” at Smartest Dollar, we’re number five in the nation for new business per capita.

The walkability and local small businesses make living in St. Pete fun. And with rental costs starting to go down, it’s actually becoming more affordable, as compared with other cities.

In downtown St. Pete, there are nearly as many rental units currently available as there are planned or under construction, creating room to allow double the number of residents to live in the heart of the city. There are more discussions underway now to increase slightly, but meaningfully, the zoning to allow for more density. With these changes and rent down or stabilized year-over-year from 2022, the number of people moving into downtown will continue to increase.

With more residents living downtown, local businesses will continue to boom. Currently, we see $68 per $100 of spending going to local businesses, versus $43 nationally.

There’s also the cultural pull of downtown St. Pete. With the Dali Museum expansion coming, the Woodson African American Museum offering a local historical perspective on the area, and the Warehouse Arts District ArtsXchange campus showcasing local artists, the area is becoming even more desirable.

If the booming business and residential growth aren’t enough to convince you of St. Pete’s strong future, the Gas Plant District redevelopment will surely change your mind.

I recently visited Atlanta to view the Braves stadium and the Beltline Pathway, which like our local Pinellas Trail was once a rail line repurposed to accommodate an active lifestyle.

The trip was eye-opening and helped me visualize some of the possibilities in store for St. Pete’s future:

– A stadium with premium yet affordable seating.
– New residential developments that will add to the housing supply as we approach 2030.
– An authentically St. Pete Gas Plant District with building setbacks and streetscapes that add to the city and fit well into its design.
– A Pinellas Trail that emulates the success of the Beltline, making the Warehouse Arts District a contender to Beach Drive and Grand Central within the next decade.

In the 32 leap years since St. Pete’s founding, we’ve seen exceptional growth and even with our recent boom, I am confident that the best is indeed yet to come. And it’s fast approaching.

Barclay Harless is SVP Market Executive for Valley Bank.

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