Several prominent local leaders began their work week by coming together and discussing area challenges and opportunities at a Monday morning “Power Breakfast.”
The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club organized the event, hosted by the St. Petersburg Museum of History. J.P. DuBuque, president of the St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corporation, moderated the early morning discussion.
Panelists included Bemetra Simmons, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership; Christian Hardigree, regional chancellor of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce; and Freddy Williams, president of the Suncoast Boys and Girls Clubs.
In typical Tiger Bay fashion, members posed pointed questions to the speakers following the initial presentation. The first regarded recent state legislation that many believe unfairly targets diversity, equity and LGBTQ initiatives.
“From an economic development standpoint, I think that the cultural wars that you’re mentioning in the State Legislature are – the way I like to describe it is we’re off task,” Simmons said. “We have other things that we need to be focused on in the state, and I think that is distracting.”
She added that those political discussions propagate a false narrative to business owners interested in relocating. However, Steinocher said the political climate does not negatively or positively impact the business community, which prefers to capitalize on opportunities and ignore the rhetoric.
One of those other focus areas Simmons mentioned is the affordable housing crisis, and a club member asked if panelists had any solutions to mitigate soaring costs. Steinocher asked attendees to peer out the waterfront museum’s windows and noted that a ferry could transport people from downtown St. Petersburg to Riverview, in south Hillsborough County.
“There are more houses being built there than anywhere in Tampa Bay,” he said. “If our workforce is going to want that three (bedroom), two (bath) affordable house, they’re not going to have that on Beach Drive. But with a 20-minute boat ride, they will have all that, and that’s ready for us.”
Housing also came up earlier in the discussion. Hardigree noted that rent for an average one-bedroom apartment near USFSP is about $1,900 per month, and someone would need to make $79,000 annually to avoid cost-burdened status.
Recent graduates rarely earn that amount, and she said, “We don’t want to educate phenomenal talent and then just force them to export.”
“I want to be able to keep them here, incentivize that and continue to build on it,” Hardigree added. “And so, coming up with those solutions is really critical.”
Staying on the topic of nurturing tomorrow’s leaders, Williams then stressed the importance of bolstering youth mental health initiatives. He said he spent 15 years with the Boys and Girls Club and never had to Baker Act – or involuntarily institutionalize – a child to prevent self-harm until the pandemic.
“The fact that in the last 24 months, we’ve had to do it over four times just goes to show the challenges that youth face,” Williams said.
He explained that adults have difficulty processing what they see in the media, and the problem increases exponentially with children. Williams said behavioral issues affect reading levels, a critical indicator of future success.
Simmons noted Tampa Bay leads the nation in net migration, and the region’s “secret is out.” However, as highlighted in her organization’s recent study, wages are not keeping pace with living costs.
She said local leaders have the opportunity to address the issue by increasing transportation options and connecting the metropolitan area’s counties. She credited St. Petersburg and Pinellas County officials for implementing the region’s first bus rapid transit system, and said Tampa Bay needs more innovative solutions.
Steinocher jokingly said the city needs more pickleball courts. He noted a group was frequenting city council meetings with that demand, and other residents recently complained about a parking garage’s bell disrupting their meditation.
“There is a world where those are the problems of the residents of St. Pete,” Steinocher said.
He added that 62 people start a new job in the city daily and said the transition typically nets them a 20% to 30% salary increase. Steinocher explained that everyone experiences various challenges, but he believes “a lot of it is relative.”
He said ensuring everyone’s experience “is just a little bit better every day” is key to a community’s success. Decreasing poverty gaps by increasing graduation rates and professional skill levels are examples Steinocher used of areas where local leaders can improve residents’ outcomes.
While St. Petersburg has many of the same problems plaguing the nation, he said, “We got a team of people that are working on them and trying to just get better every day.”