“How do you preserve the best of St. Pete, while recognizing that St. Pete is going to change?” That’s a central question for Jason Mathis, the new Chief Executive Officer of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.
Mathis was hired in July to lead the Downtown Partnership – a private organization that invests in project-based initiatives in the city core to benefit St. Petersburg businesses and citizens. After an extensive, months-long search process, he will fill the role left vacant by former CEO Joni James, who stepped down in late 2017. Mathis brings 20+ years of experience in nonprofit work – most recently with the Downtown Alliance of Salt Lake City.
St. Petersburg has long felt like home to Mathis. In fact, he can chronicle his son’s growing years through photos taken on St. Pete Beach. Despite spending his entire adult life in Salt Lake City, Mathis and his family often vacationed in or around Orlando, they’d always be sure to make their way to St. Pete Beach. Now, they’re excited to call St. Pete home full-time.
As Mathis and his family adjust to their new hometown, Mathis has hit the ground running. Just two weeks into his position, Mathis is taking his first few weeks to act as a sponge, absorbing information and meeting with as many business and community leaders as possible.
“One of my goals is to meet with 100 business leaders in 100 days,” Mathis explained. “I asked our board members for 15 names of people they think I should get to know. There are some duplicates, but it’s a long list.” A long list for a city comprised of complex public figures, thought leaders and an involved business community that operates from multiple corridors, not just downtown.
Meeting the city with fresh eyes has its benefits, Mathis said. “There is this unique window when I am still an outsider and I don’t have any baggage or relationships so I can see things with fresh eyes,” he explained. “But that should be moderated a little bit with some base knowledge of what has happened before and what people care about.”
He’s learning more about the city every day, and developing priorities for his tenure at the Partnership. That includes a tight relationship with the City of St. Petersburg. “Most downtown organizations have a big public financing component,” said Mathis. “They’re financed from tax increments from the property owners, but the city is the conduit to collect those taxes and have a contract with the downtown organization.”
That’s how the Downtown Alliance of Salt Lake City functioned, but not how St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership works. “Here, it is nearly 100 percent private money,” says Mathis.
That private money comes from the founders of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. During its formation 50 years ago, the founders accumulated 10 acres of the private land that surrounded Bayboro Harbor. That land made the Partnership’s first project, the location of a University of South Florida campus within St. Petersburg, possible. It is on that land where the USFSP campus now sits. The Partnership is supported by private shareholders, but it also garners much of its income from the management of USFSP buildings, among other sources.
“In some ways it’s great because you can move quickly,” said Mathis. “But in some ways I don’t know if we have had as close a relationship with the city as we might have if we were dependent on the city for funding.” One of Mathis’ priorities will be to work closely with the City of St. Petersburg to push Partnership initiatives forward. In fact, one of his first meetings in St. Petersburg was with City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle.
Development is essential, according to Mathis, for a successful city core. “No matter where you are, what city you live in, it’s going to change,” he said. “Really the goal is to acknowledge that change is going to happen but to manage that change to try to preserve the elements that make the community unique, and then bring in new amenities, new buildings, new developments that build on the character that already exists.”
Mathis also sees incredible potential for building up St. Pete’s brand with the Innovation District – another project pushed forward by the Partnership. It houses USFSP, USF College of Marine Sciences, NOAA, and other leading marine research and educational facilities, as well as Johns Hopkins All Children’s, the Poynter Institute, and Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.
“There is this secret about St. Pete in terms of this concentration – this cluster – of marine research,” said Mathis. “With climate change and the impact of oceans on coastal communities and because we have a real incentive to understand this better, St. Petersburg is uniquely positioned to be a global leader in understanding these issues and what it’s going to take to prepare cities.”
“I’d be interested in thinking about how we get that story told to a wider audience,” Mathis said. “In the marine research world people know about St. Pete. But what if we were to do some sort of national marketing campaign? ‘The leading minds from around the world are being attracted to St. Petersburg, Florida to find answers.’”
“There’s something really magical that’s already happened and my goal would just be to accentuate that and build on it. And to tell the story in a way that really resonates with people.”
Mathis’ other priorities will include a focus on arts as economic drivers, the Tropicana Field redevelopment project, the consolidation of USFSP into the full USF system, and encouraging the development of Class A office space in downtown St. Petersburg.
To hear more from Jason Mathis, look out for a Catalyst audio interview in the coming days.