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Movers and shakers help define St. Pete’s future

Veronica Brezina



Ryan Griffin (left), a business litigation attorney at Johnson Pope and restaurant investor, and Mark Ferguson (right), owner of Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill, talk about their entrepreneurship journey in the city and those who helped along the way. All photos by Veronica Brezina unless otherwise credited.

Part 2 in a two-part series detailing the panels and discussions held May 12 during the Inside St. Pete event. 

The Leadership St. Pete Alumni Association and St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce’s Inside St. Pete event kicked off last week at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, educating newcomers to business executives and civic leaders who are shaping the city’s future. 

In a guided city tour aboard a trolley, the chamber members introduced the 20-plus attendees to the local movers and shakers while providing an overview of the city’s most anticipated projects. 

This is a highlighted summary of the day-long event: 

St. Pete History Museum Executive Director Rui Farias presents a quick overview of the city’s history to the attendees. 

Ferg in the ‘Burg 

A stop at Ferg’s Sports Bar and Grill, a longtime staple, and meet-and-greet with founder and St. Pete native Mark Ferguson was a “must do” on the itinerary. 

The restaurant and bar, converted from a Sunoco gas station in the former Gas Plant District, calls itself the “headquarters of Tampa Bay Rays fans” as it’s near Tropicana Field, attracting thousands of people during Rays games. 

“You take care of your business, and it will grow,” Ferguson shared with the attendees chowing down on Ferg’s wings. 

Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg’s Sports Bar & Grill. File photo. 

In addressing questions about how the bar has weathered shifting economic environments, Ferguson said he is currently struggling in keeping up with staffing demands. 

“In the front of the house, we are having a hard time finding kitchen help at a reasonable price. When you do find that, you have to up your prices,” he said, explaining he is taking certain measures to mitigate the demands. 

“We have invested in an ATM pizza machine. We cook 20 to 30 pizzas every two days and put them inside the vending machine. People can get a hot pizza in four minutes. We sell more pizzas after midnight than at any other time,” said Ferguson, stating it relieves some of the workload. 

Ferguson said he also is adding two golf simulators on the upper floor and hopes to create golfing leagues. 

Ryan Griffin, a serial restaurant entrepreneur and a partner at law firm Johnson Pope’s St. Pete office, also spoke to the hungry crowd about the city’s warm business climate. 

Ryan Griffin Johnson Pope

Ryan Griffin, attorney at Johnson Pope. Image provided.

“I’ve been building bars since I was 20 against my family’s better wishes,” Griffin chuckled. He is an owner of the Mandarin Hide, Souzou and Trophy Fish restaurants.  

Griffin was a key leader for St. Pete’s Grow Smarter initiative, outlying the city’s economic sustainability plans, and said he conducted 130 meetings with executives. He also served on the chamber’s board. 

Although Griffin could have landed anywhere after law school, the St. Pete-born businessman wanted to be part of the city’s evolution. 

“All my friends went to New York and other cities after graduation, and my law degree kept me here. But I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to be here, I’m going to make it the best,'” Griffin said. “You have the opportunity to make (your business) the way you want it to be. You can’t pivot and sculpt it.” 

Griffin highlighted how he took a chance on delivering the Trophy Fish and Mandarin Hide concepts.

“Back in 2009, I traveled to England and New York a lot, and there were a lot of places creating mixology bars. From that experience, I told my partner we need these [crafted cocktails] and egg-wash drinks and they said it was a crazy idea. We have built the first craft cocktail bar in Tampa Bay,” Griffin said. 

Like Ferguson, Griffin acknowledged he is experiencing staffing shortage woes. 

“It’s been really difficult at El Cap, especially with the kitchen crew,” he said. Griffin is one of the partners who purchased half-interest in El Cap, the neighborhood bar and hamburger grill that’s been a fixture at 3500 4th Street N. since 1958. The partners are working together to preserve the restaurant. 

During the pandemic, many employees migrated out of the area while some staff gained skills in other areas, leaving a gap in entry-level positions. 

To address the issue, Griffin said the team has to offer competitive wages and incentives to retain and attract high-quality staff. 


Tampa Bay Rays: A new era 

Rays co-president Matt Silverman openly discussed the team’s challenges and triumphs, and the current plans for the proposed stadium. 

It’s nearly impossible to talk about the city without mentioning the redevelopment of the 86-acre Tropicana Field/Gas Plant District. 

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch’s administration is working towards a stadium redevelopment agreement with the selected Rays and Hines development team.

Rays co-president Matt Silverman explained the uphill battle the Rays have faced in pursuing a new ballpark since 2016, recalling how the initial plan to build a ballpark in Ybor City failed to generate the needed political backing. The sister city concept was born out of the failed attempt, calling for a split season that would be played in Tampa and Montreal. 

“We thought it was the last attempt. Both regions love baseball, but they haven’t been able to support it,” Silverman said about the rejected plans. 

He applauded the Welch administration for working with the team as the city is determined to “get St. Pete back in the game.” 

“If you asked me 10 years ago if I thought we would stay in St. Pete, I would have said that there’s a less than zero percent chance,” Silverman said. 

Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association, shared how she’s in support of the Rays’ proposal. 

Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association, shared how she never intended to be in support of the Rays’ joint proposal, but after strenuous vetting and questioning the development team on how the plans will pay respectable homage to the Gas Plant District that once thrived at the stadium site, Reese said she is championing their plan. 

Reese said structural racism is still embedded in the city, reflecting on the displacement of the African American community and how racism is alive and well today, but the city and Rays are moving in a progressive direction.

Following the lunch meeting with the Rays, Veatrice Farrell, director of digital inclusion at the Community Foundation Tampa Bay, hopped on the trolley to educate attendees about The Deuces.


An ever-changing canvas

From left to right: Dave Walker, owner of Zen Glass Studio and Gallery; Celeste Davis, the city’s director of arts, culture and tourism; Helen Murray, producing artistic director of American Stage; and Fairgrounds CEO and co-founder Liz Dimmit. 

The tour group stopped at the Duncan McClellan Gallery in the Warehouse Arts District, which features rotating exhibitions showcasing national and internationally recognized glass artists.

St. Pete Arts Alliance Director Terry Marks moderated a panel discussion with speakers Dave Walker, owner of Zen Glass Studio and Gallery, Celeste Davis, the city’s director of arts, culture and tourism, Helen Murray, producing artistic director of American Stage, and Fairgrounds CEO and co-founder Liz Dimmit. 

Highlights from the panel: The responses were edited for clarity. 

Davis: I think of art as the infrastructure of the city. It’s like the powerlines and plumbing. If you were to remove art, St. Pete would no longer be a functioning city. In measuring success for artists, I look at the grants awarded to organizations/artists. 

Walker: Art directs a lot of the tourists here. Florida has a ton of beach towns, but they come here to experience our performance arts culture and they would rather spend their vacation time here than the other cities. As an artist, having such a vibrant art community is invaluable. For the longest time, we would travel all over the state to find other artists to collaborate with. If I need a stand for a piece or someone needs glass for a project, we can go next door and find that artist. 

Murray: Part of the reason I moved here was because of the great allyship among artists. Having said that, it’s interesting living here. This is the first time I’ve been in a state where censorship is playing a role in how we reach audiences. We can’t perform some of our shows to school groups, and that’s going to continue to be an issue. We are about to produce Hedwig and the Angry Inch next season, and it’s the first time I had to put an age restriction on a show. 

Dimmit: My favorite thing in the city is to do studio visits. I love visiting artists and picking their brains and roaming from one studio to the next. The access you have in the city is what makes it so exciting for me. 

Jenee Priebe, SHINE Mural festival director, was not part of the panel but shared the inner workings of SHINE, an annual festival that allows artists to work to create murals on the exterior of buildings. The artists have free creative expressions in the mural work, which Priebe said has been a successful component of the programming.   


Taking a deep dive into The Hub

The attendees tour the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. 

 The Maritime and Defense Technology Hub in the St. Pete Innovation District was among the must-see destinations for the group. 

The hub brings private sector and government maritime and defense organizations under one roof in the repurposed city-owned building.  

“We deliberately brought together those in academics, governments, non-profits and private industries. Most of our private industry [tenants] are small businesses. We also picked two concentrations – maritime tech and national security of defense – and that was because of unique attributes of the building,” said Innovation District Executive Director Alison Barlow, a veteran business leader in the Department of Defense industry. She gave a guided tour of the 38,000-square-foot facility, formerly known as the SRI building. 

“The fact that we are on the water and have 24 feet of depth allows us to be a testing and valuation site. This type of setup does not exist elsewhere in Tampa Bay,” Barlow said. 

Gina Driscoll, a Petersburg City Councilmember representing District 6, said Barlow approached the city about the concept of not just establishing a co-working space but a true hub that neighbors the U.S. Coast Guard’s St. Petersburg base and USF’s College of Marine Science. 

Today, The Hub has 19 tenants, including Saildrone

A Saildrone USV sits outside its ocean mapping headquarters at St. Pete’s Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. Photo by Mark Parker.

The California-based company creates autonomous water-based vessels that travel around the world, collecting environmental data, doing coastal mapping and tracking hurricanes. 

Saildrone has deployed over a dozen vessels, said Barlow, while showing Salidrone’s currently housed vessels.

The Inside St. Pete attendees also heard from a panel of real estate and economic development execs.

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  1. Avatar

    Debi Mazor

    May 16, 2023at3:40 pm

    These folks sound as if they felt the heartbeat of the City. Unfortunately that heartbeat is getting fainter every time the City cedes its land to developers who only see dollar signs here.

  2. Avatar

    R Weiner

    May 16, 2023at4:58 pm

    Give it a rest, Debi. Pet your cat and get over the fact that DTSP has become a city people are flocking to live in.

  3. Avatar


    May 19, 2023at2:37 am

    Gone are the days of the acl club and the Ricky bonzie snaps fest and the swamp club. St pete isn’t wrinkle city anymore. If you grew at McDonald’s and 83rd Avenue on the weekends you know what I mean. Life moves on, embrace it.

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