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Here’s what will draw businesses to the Trop site and what could turn them away

Margie Manning

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Tropicana Field

St. Petersburg will be up against some tough competition from other fast-growing cities as it works to attract high-profile businesses and projects to a redeveloped Tropicana Field site.

The 86-acre site and the surrounding area has plenty of attributes that will draw businesses, such as population growth, workforce and potential partners in higher education, consultants hired to study the site said at the city’s State of the Economy presentation Wednesday.

It also faces challenges, including residents who are older and less educated than in other cities, the consultants said.

“Higher education will have to play a really big role, probably even a bigger role than we thought when we first started this project,” said Chris Schwinden, senior vice president of Site Selection Group, a Dallas-based company that helps companies choose locations.

SSG, hired by Duke Energy to prepare a site readiness plan, focused on factors that would lead to the “highest and best use” of the property. It’s a complex project with multiple objectives such as high-paying jobs and a good mix of housing and commercial space, said Beth Land, vice president at SSG.

The SSG presentation at the State of the Economy did not specifically touch on proposals from some St. Petersburg City Council members and residents who want to see a wide range of uses for the Trop site, including small businesses and affordable housing.

There also was no mention of a proposal by unsuccessful City Council candidate Eritha Cainion and others to return the land to the African-Americans who lost their homes and businesses when the site initially was developed.

Alan DeLisle, city development administrator, said the city is discussing community benefits agreements that could address some of those concerns. Also underway is a downtown mobility study that looks at transportation issues, and possibly revamping Interstate 175, a barrier to south St. Petersburg right now.

“Chris and I are offering one very specific perspective, and we think it’s only one perspective within a broad range of ideas, concerns and suggestions that need to be considered,” Land said. “We want to make sure we don’t just let this develop as it would. The city and the county have control of this property and that is particularly rare, for a property this much in the center of the community. We want to make sure you have a good idea of the highest and best uses of the property, and be an advocate for the community to make sure it’s developed in the right way.”

‘Unbelievable opportunity’

St. Petersburg has been working for several years on redevelopment plans for the city-owned Trop site, where the Tampa Bay Rays have a lease to play baseball through the 2027 season. The Rays have not committed to remaining at the site beyond that, and the city has prepared two conceptual master plans, with and without a stadium.

SSG looks at hundreds of sites annually, and “we can say without question that this is probably one of the best sites you can imagine,” Schwinden said. “It can change the dynamic of this city and this community, from a workforce perspective, from a demographic perspective, from a community development perspective … It’s an unbelievable opportunity.”

SSG benchmarked the Trop site and the area 40 minutes around it against places that have other high-profile projects — Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; and Phoenix, Arizona.

Beth Land and Chris Schwinden, Site Selection Group

Statistics that DeLisle highlighted during the State of the Economy program would work both for and against efforts to draw high-profile projects to the site, Schwinden said.

On the plus side, the city’s population jumped 4.94 percent between 2015 and 2019, outpacing Pinellas County’s 3.5 percent population gain in that same time period. The median age in St. Pete in 2018 was 41.2 years, much younger than the median age of 48.1 years in 1970.

While the median age in St. Pete decreased 0.8 years between 2014 and 2018, median ages in Florida, Pinellas County, and the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area went up. That could be a challenge, Schwinden said.

“Folks are going to look at the data around the site and say this looks a little bit older than a Raleigh-Durham or a Charlotte or a Nashville or an Austin. Age profile is a critical constraint, as are educational attainment levels for really high-end projects that will be highest and best use,” he said.

Nearly 92 percent of St. Pete residents had a high school degree in 2018. Just over one-third, or 36.6 percent, have a bachelor’s degree and 12.6 percent have a graduate degree. That’s a lower percentage of people with bachelor’s and graduate degrees than in Durham, North Carolina; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Orlando.

Workforce skills also are key. St. Pete residents have experience in business occupations and “moderate skill” information technology jobs, as well as health care.

“But again if this site is going to be used for highest and best use, how is it going to look compared to some of those other markets where you are looking for really high-skilled IT workers, really high-skilled engineering and life science workers. That’s going to be the question on development of this site,” Schwinden said.

University of South Florida and University of South Florida St. Petersburg are “growing like crazy,” he said, with increased research and development spending.

“But the challenge is going to be what’s the value proposition and how integrated are institutions of higher education with development of the site,” Schwinden said. “When is a company going to say I want to partner with USF or USFSP at this site, rather than partnering with a North Carolina State in Durham or a Georgia Tech in Atlanta or an Arizona State in Phoenix? There’s a lot of competition on the higher ed side, and that’s going to be the crux of making sure you get the most attractive industries on this site.”

Diverse neighborhoods

Other factors likely to appeal to businesses are the Trop site’s visibility and accessibility from Interstate 275, as well as Booker Creek, which runs through the site.

“It’s so hard to recruit good talent and if you can incorporate walking trails, water features, anything that makes [workers] feel like they’re not trapped in a cubicle all day, that’s a good thing,” Land said.

While the property has “robust” infrastructure, Land also suggested the city proactively address perceived risks of monitoring wells, to earmark acreage for a substation and to consider longterm wastewater needs.

She displayed maps showing the diverse neighborhoods around the Trop site, as well as walking times to get to other area locations.

“Between the neighborhood and walkability, there are communities out there that would kill for what you have here. The energy, the environment, the growth, this is very exciting,” Land said.

While there is time before the Rays’ lease runs out, she said the city should start planning now because of the complexity of the project. She suggested hiring a development partner and offered one final bit of advice.

“The communities that are most successful retain some flexibility in their vision. Long term, you want the best plan, not the first one you land on,” Land said.

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