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St. Pete Chamber’s 125th annual event highlights inclusive growth

Mark Parker



Chris Steinocher (standing), CEO of the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce, at the organization's 125th annual meeting in January. Attendees heard the possibilities for an efficient and affordable ferry system, like the one found in Seattle. Photo by Mark Parker.

Despite a 7:30 a.m. start time, over 300 local civic and business leaders gathered Friday for the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce’s 125th annual meeting.

The event’s title, “Rise & Shine,” was a double entendre for the city’s trajectory. A procession of speakers highlighted its recent growth, inclusivity and bright future at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s Center for Health Equity.

The Tampa Bay Rays have sponsored the meeting for a decade. Team president Brian Auld credited the Chamber’s “unwavering support” through 25 years of “ups and downs” for helping ensure the team would remain in St. Petersburg.

Auld added that Mayor Ken Welch pushed the Rays/Hines development team to make the Historic Gas Plant District “the most intentional, inclusive and unique development project throughout the planet.”

Welch noted the Chamber and its CEO, Chris Steinocher, partnered with the city’s St. Pete Greenhouse to foster entrepreneurialism, advocated for local legislative priorities and implemented its “Thinking Outside the ‘Burg” benchmarking trips. Those included discussions on stadium developments and affordable housing zoning changes in Minneapolis and transit initiatives in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

Welch said the city and Chamber’s partnerships support informed decision-making and intentional equity. He believes those efforts set St. Petersburg apart from other cities and attract companies and startups.

“It means that we don’t ignore our past,” Welch said. “Rather, we learn from our past.”

Over 300 business and civic leaders from across the area attended the event.

Jason Jensen, president of Wannemacher Jensen Architects, expressed the Chamber’s commitment to fostering an equitable business ecosystem. He said the goal is to ensure everyone is “moving together on one path in a very divisive world.”

That included a subtle tweak to the 126-year-old organization’s mission statement. Jensen, the Chamber’s outgoing board chairperson, highlighted that it now pledges to “ensure the economic growth and vitality for all in our community” rather than just “our community.”

Steinocher said the Florida Chamber of Commerce wants Pinellas County to create 20,000 new jobs by 2030. He reiterated that the $6.5 billion Gas Plant redevelopment will provide 37,000.

The Chamber is also growing alongside the city it serves. Steinocher said it welcomed 345 new members last year.

Steinocher, using his oft-repeated bus analogy, explained that the Chamber – and its 43-member Leadership Alliance – can help people reach their personally defined destinations. The recently established, diverse group works to ensure the entire community has a say in the city’s future.

Steinocher called Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, “one of the old people on the bus.” Steinocher asked Mathis why he was an early proponent of the Leadership Alliance.

Mathis said the city is growing at a “remarkable pace” and would look “vastly different” in 10 years. He explained that stakeholders could let that happen haphazardly or take a more thoughtful approach to planning the future.

“It’s still not going to turn out the way we want, but it will turn out a hell of a lot better than if we don’t get together, we don’t strategize,” Mathis added. “That’s really the benefit of this Leadership Alliance. It’s an iterative, continuously growing opportunity for us to plan our future together.”

Ray Delahanty, star of the “CityNerd” YouTube channel, served as the keynote speaker.

Ray Delahanty, a former urban planner turned YouTube star, served as the event’s keynote speaker. His “CityNerd” channel has 239,000 subscribers.

The Portland, Oregon-based urbanist presented data to showcase St. Petersburg’s transit-related strengths and weaknesses. Delahanty said 32% – “a fairly small number” – of residents work in the city.

He said 11% of St. Petersburg’s population travels to Tampa for employment, straining the region’s transit system. Delahanty, like Steinocher, believes a commuter ferry service could mitigate congestion.

Delahanty said parking lots cover 28% of St. Petersburg’s core. “Which isn’t a great number, but I also want to note that a lot of it is in that Gas Plant District (Tropicana Field), which you guys are talking about redeveloping. So, that’s encouraging,” he added.

Delahanty highlighted the benefits of water taxis found in other coastal metropolitan areas. Those were significantly more popular and less expensive than Tampa Bay’s seasonal Cross Bay Ferry.

He said the free Staten Island Ferry carries more passengers than the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Agency. “If you ever think people won’t use ferries to get back and forth – yeah, they do.”


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  1. Avatar

    Alan DeLisle

    January 28, 2024at8:31 am

    Sounds like the Music Man is playing in St Pete. Be careful when the marketing is stronger than the deal. Ask these simple questions: who is paying for the infrastructure? the city. Who is paying for the community benefits? The city by discounting the land. Who is paying for the land? The city because they have given up all of its revenue streams on the stadium. Who is paying for the stadium? Mainly the public sector. Then ask what is the city guaranteed in the deal? Nothing other than the stadium, which they are mainly paying for. The development is uncertain at best and the community benefits are mainly goals, not requirements. Wall Street wins again. The best deal on the “planet,” I don’t think so. This is a moment of “profile of courage” for all the great leaders in St Pete. Remember, the Music Man was eventually discovered and run out of town. Look deep St Pete. Demand quality economic development not marketing ploys. You are better than this bad sheet of music.

  2. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    January 27, 2024at8:16 pm

    We need to recall Welch once we kill this awful Rays deal. He alone reinitiated the RFP and selected Rays/Hines.

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