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Downtown Partnership Luncheon showcases Innovation District’s recent success

Mark Parker



Tonya Elmore, President and CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, was instrumental in bringing ARK Invest to St. Pete. Photos by Mark Parker.

Yesterday’s St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership Leadership Luncheon was all about highlighting the many remarkable projects that have recently come out of the Innovation District – and there was a lot to discuss.

Held in the heart of the Innovation District at the Poynter Institute, Tuesday’s luncheon was attended by local business leaders and had a strong city council presence. Councilmembers Ed Montanari, Gina Driscoll and Robert Blackmon (who’s also a mayoral candidate) were in attendance. The University of South Florida St. Petersburg is across the street from Poynter, and popular Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock was there to represent the campus and support USF Interim President Rhea Law, who was also a featured speaker.

While there are many endeavors fueling the growth of St. Pete coming out of the Innovation District, the one garnering the most national headlines is the brainchild of the day’s last speaker, Tonya Elmore. Elmore, President and CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, was instrumental in bringing Cathie Wood and her ARK Investment firm to the Sunshine City.

“We really feel like it’s a game-changer,” said Elmore of Wood’s decision to relocate her headquarters and team to St. Pete. “A game-changer that will be ongoing for generations in our community.”

Elmore is spearheading the effort to build a new 45,000 square-foot innovation center incubator in the district, and Wood is paying $2 million for naming rights. The $15.87 million project will now be known as the ARK Innovation Center, and Elmore believes that partnership is just as beneficial for the city as hosting ARK’s new base of operations.

Elmore called the partnership a catalyst for change and noted how it expects to bring 1,265 jobs and $127 million to the area in the first three years. Those numbers jump to 6,325 jobs and $635 million in the first five years, and in 10 years, the collaboration expects to bring 12,650 jobs and over a billion dollars into the city.

“They really liked our community and the fact that we were focused on technology and innovation,” said Elmore. “To hear it from the outside just really opened up our eyes. I thank the community as a whole for what we have the potential to be.”

While ARK Invest moving to town may have the most name recognition, it is hardly the only development coming out of the Innovation District positively impacting St. Petersburg. Innovation District Executive Director Alison Barlow began her presentation by showing the crowd the many organizations that comprise the district and how their proximity fuels the collaboration of ideas.

Allison Barlow, Executive Director of the Innovation District, highlighted plans for the new Maritime and Defense Technology Hub.

Barlow explained the district focuses on marine and life sciences, data and technology, and these areas are underpinned by education and entrepreneurship.

“These are all within less than a mile,” she said. “All these organizations you see here, we’re sitting in kind of the center of it at Poynter with the university, the hospital, all the potential.”

Barlow then proudly told the audience how the Innovation District is opening its Maritime and Defense Technology Hub in the coming months. Housed in the former SRI building, the district recently took ownership of the 32,000-square-foot facility that houses “some really unique spaces.”

“It has wet labs,” began Barlow. “It has workspaces with access to the port, and it has the ability to do secure communications. We looked at that building that was once a single tenant and said, ‘what can we do to energize the Innovation District,’ and really energize those industries I mentioned.”

Barlow confirmed 12 organizations were carefully selected to occupy the Hub thus far. In addition to being leaders in the maritime and technology fields, there are also federal organizations and a nonprofit sharing the space. Most importantly, tenants have to be actively engaged in the district and the community.

Barlow announced the facility is the initial home of the Florida Flood Hub and the U.S. headquarters for the global geospatial data company Pole Star.

“They’re coming here because they will be side-by-side with the Coast Guard, which is the building right next door,” added Barlow. “So, there’s going to be all the opportunities and collisions when these groups come together.”

A discussion on the Innovation District would not be complete without highlighting the many successes coming out of the higher-learning institution that anchors the area – USFSP. Law said that when she was asked to lead USF, Board of Trustees Chairman Will Weatherford told her to keep up the trajectory and momentum of the university.

“Well, I can tell you this campus right here in St. Petersburg is taking off,” stated Law.

Law noted the campus now boasts five National Merit Scholars for the first time in history. There has been a 50% increase in membership to the Judy Genshaft Honors College, which she called a huge accomplishment in a short time. Osprey Suites, the new and expansive residential hall, welcomed its first students for the fall semester, and Law added that arts programming is enhanced due to consolidation.

USF President Rhea Law highlighted USFSP’s recent success.

Law was especially proud of USFSP recently opening the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) research lab and credits Attorney General Ashley Moody for being a strong supporter of the endeavor. The TIP lab will help nonprofit groups, legislators and law enforcement agencies by providing accurate data resources for victims of human trafficking.

“Again, this is USF solving problems for the community,”

Law concluded by saying she is excited to partner with the businesses represented at the luncheon, and looks forward to seeing what the future holds for the university and the Innovation District.

“This is what makes us great,” said Law. “And as we all look at this region and realize USF is our university, there is nothing that can stop us.”



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