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Entrepreneurial diversity grows in the St. Pete Greenhouse

Mark Parker



Mayor Ken Welch announces a new microfund program in front of the St. Pete Greenhouse earlier this month. Organization officials will announce the first recipients June 5 or 6. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

New partnerships, funding and an expanding workforce are helping the St. Pete Greenhouse foster an increasingly diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem; team members are also helping mitigate the city’s construction challenges.

City council members heard a comprehensive update on the organization’s revamped efforts at Thursday’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee meeting. Tracey Smith, co-manager and small business liaison, and Ronnel Montgomery, co-manager and vice president of economic inclusion & business growth, led the presentation.

As a unique public-private partnership, the Greenhouse comprises City and St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce employees. The organization expects to graduate 100 burgeoning business leaders from its programs this year.

“We frequently have people come to us from other areas of the country and say, ‘I have never ever seen anything like this before – how do you all make this happen?'” Smith relayed. “And so, we are very proud that we have been successful.”

Tracey Smith, co-manager and small business liaison.

As outlined in its 2023 Action Plan Statement, the Greenhouse acts as an “entrepreneurial compass” that guides small business owners and startup founders. Its team leverages extensive partnerships to promote collaboration and bolster connections.

In addition to fostering new economic development, Montgomery announced that the organization is now working to help established businesses overcome an increasing issue.

Rampant construction across downtown St. Petersburg – combined with community events and increased traffic – is impeding access to several local establishments. Greenhouse representatives will now conduct business outreach to help owners prepare for new projects as part of an updated Construction Action Plan, which the city will release in June.

“That person becomes a liaison to those businesses so that they can reach out to the team members to let them know of any challenges they are experiencing,” Montgomery said. “We are looking forward to having solutions for businesses regarding construction challenges in the future.”

Greenhouse officials are also increasing their focus on economic inclusion. The organization has provided business mentoring and navigation for 230 people across a wide range of demographics in 2023.

Of those, 63% are women, 50% are Black and 44% are Caucasian. Startup founders comprise 49% of the organization’s clientele, while the remaining 51% encompasses “micro” and small-to-medium-sized business owners.

Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders credited Chris Steinocher, president of the Chamber, and his team for “stepping outside of the box.” She said his support of oft-overlooked small businesses elevates those owners “to different levels.”

“He has been instrumental in bridging those gaps and having those conversations,” Figgs-Sanders added. “So, I could not let this conversation go without thanking him and his direction.”

The Greenhouse’s primary function is to provide navigators trained to deliver personalized business assistance. Its leadership believes the “concierge approach” centered around relationship building, process navigation and results-based solutions helps businesses grow and thrive.

Smith said “meeting businesses where they are” is a critical aspect. That includes providing a tailored approach according to each entrepreneur’s business acumen through its entrepreneurial academy and various programs.

While the Greenhouse currently consists of three city employees and two from the Chamber, she said both teams are growing. Smith noted that the Chamber is interviewing business navigator candidates while she is filling two new economic development coordinator positions.

“So, within probably a month, we will have three new team members added at the Greenhouse,” she said.

Ronnel Montgomery, co-manager and vice president of economic inclusion and business growth.

In addition, a new partnership with Eckerd College allows anyone receiving Greenhouse services to request a school volunteer’s assistance with a program or project. Smith called it a “win-win” for the students and entrepreneurs.

The city recently launched a South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) microfund program to support small businesses in that area. The city plans to award $350,000 in increments up to $10,000 to around 50 qualifying applicants.

Montgomery relayed that the portal has closed, and officials are now evaluating applications. She said they would announce the first cohort June 5 or 6 and host a launch night soon after.

Councilmember Gina Driscoll said she is “a huge fan” of the Greenhouse and commended its staff for “keeping our small businesses front and center in our economy.” However, she also noted demographic data excluded any mention of LGBTQ participants.

“I thought there might be something in the there as far as some type of outreach or effort to make sure that our LGBTQ+ business community knows that they are welcomed and supported here,” Driscoll added. “I would say that now more than ever, we need to make sure that’s happening.”

Smith assured the committee that the group is part of outreach efforts and said the Small Business Administration generates their data. She said the organization would work to provide those statistics through internal reporting.

Councilmembers Ed Montanari and Lisset Hanewicz also said they would like to hear and highlight new success stories moving forward.

For more information on the St. Pete Greenhouse, visit the website here.




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