A decade after the Great Recession, the St. Petersburg business community is thriving.
The city’s three publicly traded companies — Jabil Inc., Raymond James Financial Inc. and United Insurance Holdings Corp. — are expanding, and United Insurance is poised to build the first new office building in the downtown core in nearly 30 years. Unemployment rates are near record lows, and median wages and corporate earnings are rising. Commercial real estate vacancy rates have plummeted. Banks’ balance sheets are relatively clean, freed from the troubled assets that led to failures. Technology companies have put down roots and are growing.
Over the next several days, the St. Pete Catalyst will examine several sectors in the city that have changed since the recession, beginning with the overall corporate climate.
“I think the city is a lot more confident than before the recession,” said Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. “Before, we lacked confidence that St. Pete was a business destination, but the investments that have been made in the last few years are encouraging.”
Ten years ago, St. Petersburg struggled with its identity, said Sophia Sorolis, a 31-year veteran of city government, currently director of the city’s Economic and Workforce Development Department.
“Now St. Petersburg has its own identity that people are focused in on and are aware of and are taking a look at,” Sorolis said.
Her boss, City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle, came to St. Pete three-and-a-half years ago, and the message he’s hearing now is quite different than when he landed here.
“We’re hearing companies say they want to be in St. Pete,” DeLisle said. “Three years ago we didn’t hear that with clarity. They’re saying it because they feel like they’ll be more productive here … More and more companies are recognizing that and saying we want to be here because we think our company will be the most productive it can be, and its workers will be creative. We heard that from United Insurance, we heard that from Raymond James we heard that from Jabil. We’re hearing it from smaller startup companies.”
Overall, the corporate climate has shifted away from the perception that St. Petersburg is a retirement community with hospitality as its primary industry.
“We’re not just a tourism location anymore,” Steinocher said. “We’re a viable business location.”
Steinocher and DeLisle credit the changes in part to the city’s Grow Smarter strategy, a four-year-old plan that targets specific industry sectors: marine and life sciences, specialized manufacturing, financial services, data analytics, and creative arts and design.
The city, the Chamber, the St. Petersburg Economic Development Corp. and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership are in agreement on the strategy and work together on it, DeLisle said.
“Ten years ago, we didn’t have that. The time in the recession allowed us to think through what we would become,” Steinocher said. “”Now everyone is on the same page. All the players are on the field and covering it effectively, not in competition with each other. That gives businesses confidence.”
Growing businesses have added jobs.
Unemployment in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area has fallen from 11.7 percent in December 2009 and January 2010, at the height of the recession, to 2.9 percent as of October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The metro area labor force has grown from 1.27 million people to 1.54 million people during the same time period, BLS said.
There were 3,000 net new jobs created in St. Petersburg last year, Sorolis said, and she expects that number to increase going forward.
Some of the new jobs are coming from big companies that are expanding their local headquarters.
Financial services provider Raymond James (NYSE: RJF) bought three new buildings in the Carillon Office Park in late 2017, and said it would add 650 jobs as a result. Jabil (NYSE: JBL), a manufacturing services provider, plans to add 300 jobs as it builds a new headquarters on its current HQ site in the Gateway area. United Insurance (NASDAQ: UIHC), a property and casualty insurer also expects to add 300 jobs when it build a new headquarters in downtown St. Pete, at 800 1st Ave. S.
St. Pete gained a major headquarters in 2015, when privately owned iQor Holdings opened a 100-person office downtown, a year after buying Jabil’s after-market business.
PandaDoc, a San Francisco-based document automation company, opened its East Coast headquarters in St. Pete in 2017, with plans to hire up to 100 people, and other San Francisco companies are interested in following suit, J.P. DuBuque, CEO of the St. Petersburg Economic Development Corp., said earlier this year.
“We are lucky to have one of the best-designed communities in the country for downtown living,” Steinocher said. “Millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers all want that now. It’s good for talent attraction and its good for business. You can have a marine scientist at a coffee shop downtown sitting next to a researcher or an investment banker. It’s not a one-business corporate downtown. We have a wide portfolio and that adds to the confidence.”
There have been losses as well. Multi-channel retailer HSN Inc. was acquired last year by QVC Group, which has since changed its name to Qurate Group Inc. (NASDAQ: QRTEA) and said it plans to eliminate 350 positions by the end of this year, most of them at HSN’s St. Petersburg and Long Island, N.Y. operations.
The shift in strategy and the resulting strength of the corporate climate broadens St. Petersburg’s appeal to other businesses, Steinocher said.
“CEOs will say, ‘I don’t want to go to a beach community for my corporate headquarters.’ We can show them, this is not a place just to spend two weeks, but a place to spend your life,” Steinocher said.
Closer look: St. Pete’s publicly traded companies 10-year gains
Jabil Inc. (formerly Jabil Circuit Inc.)
Raymond James Financial Inc.
United Insurance Holdings Corp.
Note: FY 2017 is most recent full year available