Amid the fire dancing, live painting and music Thursday night at the Floridian Social Club was an underlying theme – St. Petersburg supports its small businesses and their owners.
Ester Venouziou and her organization, LocalShops1, were at the center of it all. A sold-out crowd helped Venouziou celebrate her 15th year of showcasing and advocating for the locally owned and independent businesses that make the area unique.
What started as a Facebook group led to a rudimentary online directory in 2008. Her following grew organically through the Great Recession and, more recently, a pandemic.
LocalShops1 now boasts over 560 members. At Thursday night’s self-billed “Party of the Year,” Venouziou told the Catalyst that she “had no idea” what began as a hobby would become ingrained in St. Pete culture.
“It’s my business, but it’s more of a movement,” Venouziou said. “Because of everybody that’s involved. I don’t think LocalShops would be around if I didn’t have so many really great businesses giving me ideas.”
LocalShops1’s 13th annual Shopapalooza Festival, a homegrown Black Friday shopping alternative, will bring a record 350 vendors to Vinoy Park over Thanksgiving weekend. Artist Frederick “Rootman” Woods said local owners gravitate towards Venouziou’s personality.
He called her a “wonderful person” but said her business sense sets her apart. Woods explained that most creatives are “out there” and need someone like Venouziou to keep them grounded.
“You need someone to throw that anchor and say, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’” he added.
Venouziou noted that her parents were business owners. While she lacked interest in owning a company growing up, she developed an affinity for shopping locally.
Venouziou wrote her first small business list on a scrap piece of paper to guide her parents when they visited from New Jersey. That led to a Facebook group, a website, and exponential growth.
Before the pandemic, Venouziou held an annual anniversary party for LocalShops. She said it was a lot of work, and she took a multi-year hiatus.
However, she thought reaching 15 years deserved a grand celebration. Venouziou said there was no doubt the nearly 100-year-old Floridian should host the party.
However, she compared the rest of the event planning to jumping out of a plane and hoping the parachute opens. “Everybody knows her,” Woods interjected. “So, people jump through hoops just to help her.”
“It’s true,” Venouziou continued. “People want to help the cause. They like the collective movement.”
County Commissioner Charlie Justice, the night’s keynote speaker, noted that he was born a few blocks from the location at Mound Park Hospital. As a student at Boca Ciega High School, Justice said he never imagined he would one day become a featured aspect of something called the “Party of the Year.”
He also stressed the importance of spending money locally. That fosters job creation and keeps prices and wages competitive, Justice added.
He noted that less than 40 cents of every dollar spent at big box stores stays in the community. That number nearly doubles to 70 cents at locally owned businesses.
LocalShop1’s website states that if every household in the metro area spent $10 monthly at locally-owned businesses, nearly $90 million would return to the community annually. “That stays with local families, local charities and local schools,” Justice said.
He explained that a county program designed to help small businesses receive government contracts awarded $6 million in 2019. Commissioners have already allocated $29 million to local owners this year.
“We really believe that keeping our local tax dollars with our local projects and families is important,” Justice said. “Our local stores, our local restaurants – those are the scenes of our life.
“And I’m incredibly grateful for each and every one of you making that happen.”