Director unveils details for another maritime tech hub
Before local leaders raised a toast to celebrate St. Petersburg’s Maritime and Defense Technology Hub’s first anniversary Tuesday, its executive director officially announced plans for a connected sister facility.
When the Hub opened March 2, 2022, Dr. Rick Spinrad, undersecretary for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, noted its “potential for extraordinary impact” was something he had never seen before. Mayor Ken Welch said it would “have a profound economic impact on the City of St. Petersburg for decades to come.”
The Hub has achieved its foremost goal of bringing the triple helix of the innovation industry, government and academia together under one roof. Nearly two dozen tenants collaborate daily.
The facility also serves as a connector and gathering spot for the myriad of public and private organizations encompassing the St. Petersburg Innovation District’s (SPID) one square mile.
Alison Barlow, executive director for the SPID, oversees the Hub. She and city officials hope to expand upon its success by creating an adjacent “Hub 2,” which could further cement the waterfront strip along 8th Avenue Southeast as a national innovation destination.
“We want to leverage what we already have – but then be bold,” Barlow said. “And sometimes, it’s really hard to be bold as one entity.”
Barlow is updating a master plan for the SPID and Hub congruently with officials representing four other significant entities in the district: Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the Port of St. Petersburg.
Planning efforts will align, and all four will play integral roles in Hub 2’s creation. Barlow said stakeholders are currently building their pitch.
“It’s going to be a building that has to have a strong public good,” she explained. “It’s going to be a city building on city property. So, we want to have a government entity, an academic entity, that is a lead tenant. That is important.”
The facility will rely on public funding, and the SPID must repay city money from generated revenue. As such, Barlow said rent would more closely mirror market rates.
The Hub currently offers subsidized leases well below typical waterfront values, but she noted city payments increase yearly, and those rents would also rise accordingly.
Barlow said Hub 2’s planning and design phase would cost between $500,000 and $2.5 million, depending on the detail level. Facility construction will top $20 million.
She said the state’s Port Council could contribute due to Hub 2’s marine-based uses on the harbor. Barlow hopes to fund planning and design efforts through grants, a critical aspect of all SPID efforts.
“We’ve got to figure out how to publicly fund this, and then we can do some land bonding or something potentially – but we have to repay that,” she added. “This building (Hub 1) was built using mostly federal money with a little bit of county and a little bit of city. It’s a city building on city property.”
Hub 2 will again focus on maritime initiatives. Not only is funding predicated on that usage, but Barlow noted an exorbitant need for more waterfront bays.
She explained how the Hub is the only facility on a commercial port in Tampa Bay with waterfront bays that can safely accommodate research and development vessels. She said the first floor of the new facility would “for sure” feature several of those alcoves for tenants like Saildrone.
“I don’t think we’ll build more labs,” Barlow said. “Because we have them here. Unless we suddenly have a huge uptick in the next year of needs for lab spaces, which we might.”
She relayed that many people do not realize SPID partners own several properties in the district, particularly its northernmost edges. Barlow added that the two hospitals possess “quite a few” vacant lots.
SPID members will now inventory what they own and establish best uses. She used USFSP’s College of Nursing, currently housed in the Port’s terminal, as an example.
Barlow called that an odd spot but explained it was previously the only available space near the campus. However, she said stakeholders “desperately need” to find a new home for the college.
She and hospital officials have discussed dedicating a couple of floors in proposed expansions for nursing students. That would create a direct talent pipeline, and Barlow said those are the “big picture conversations” now taking place.
Barlow is also floating the idea of creating workforce housing nearby.
“Could we build a tower?” she asked rhetorically. “Then, different partners end up with different floors that they could use as a place to help land new recruits. I don’t know if we’ll get it figured out because it’s very complicated with financing, but that’s an idea.”
Barlow noted talks to rezone the area along the adjacent Salt Creek for research and housing initiatives are ongoing, although she called those efforts “nebulous.”
In addition to master planning, she said SPID officials would soon issue a request for proposals through the city for an urban planning partner. She will also ensure all stakeholders have a voice through upcoming charettes.
“We want to see if we can get some federal grants in this year for the initial planning and design,” Barlow said. “With that … we will get some real numbers on construction costs. But this has all got to go through the city, because it’s going to be their building.”