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Tampa Bay Innovation Center inches closer to a permanent home

Margie Manning

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Tonya Elmore is president and CEO of Tampa Bay Innovation Center.

A state-of-the-art business incubator to foster entrepreneurship and creation of high-tech jobs in Pinellas County is a step closer to reality.

The Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to provide additional local funding to match a federal grant that would pay for most of the $12 million project. It still requires final approval from both the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the county.

The money would fund construction of what is currently envisioned as a 45,000-square-foot structure built on 2.5 acres at 4th Street South and 11th Avenue South in St. Petersburg. It would be owned by the county and operated by the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, a nonprofit that’s been providing business incubation services for 15 years.

The EDA agreed to fund $7.5 million, or 62 percent of the project cost, provided there’s a local match of $4.5 million. That’s $1.5 million, or 50 percent more, than the $3 million the county initially set aside for the project.

Even at a slighter smaller size, 40,000-square-foot, the incubator will make an economic difference, said Tonya Elmore, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center.

“Each year, starting at year one, it should have a $70 million impact back to the community,” Elmore told county commissioners.

Elmore said she has been talking to potential corporate partners, some of whom have softly committed to a potential naming rights deal that would provide some private funding for the project. She declined to name those companies.

The new incubator would be located in the St. Pete Innovation District, a 520-acre hub on the waterfront  adjacent to downtown. The district’s role is to bring together more than 30 organizations to foster job growth through innovation. That helps to grow entrepreneurs, attract talent and help students learn about jobs in target industries including marine science and life science, specialized manufacturing, creative art and design, and data analytics, said Alison Barlow, executive director of the district.

“One of the things that’s exciting about this opportunity is it gives us a place to bring a lot of these folks together,” Barlow said.

She also cited the recent selection of St. Petersburg to a national consortium of Smart Cities. Smart Cities use technology to solve both business and community problems.

“Smart City technology, the sensors and data and everything that comes with a new wave of capabilities, needs workforce. What we would like to do is create space for that,” Barlow said.

The Tampa Bay Technology Center currently is housed in downtown St. Petersburg, after moving from the St. Petersburg College Downtown Center last fall. While located in St. Petersburg it draws people from all over, said Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County Economic Development.

“There are clients currently in the downtown building who have residents in Lakeland, Sarasota and beyond. This new 45,000-square-foot, purpose-built facility will be an attractor from all over the country. I would expect people to actually move here in order to take advantage of it,” Meidel told the county commission.

The new business incubator been under discussion for about four years. It took on increased urgency in 2017 after Hurricane Irma.

The storm showed Pinellas County’s economy is greatly influenced by external shocks and natural disasters, because it is reliant on the tourism and real estate industries, according to the county’s application to the EDA. The incubator would focus on targeted industries and would provide more employment diversity and opportunities for higher pay and full-time employment, the application said.

Meidel said the exact funding source for the county’s $4.5 million local match has not yet been determined. Initially, the county hoped to pay for the project with proceeds from the sale of the Young-Rainey STAR Center in Largo, a 96-acre manufacturing and technology campus, but the county rejected three purchase bids and decided to keep the property.

Other potential funding sources include the county’s general fund, the sale of surplus property, the Penny for Pinellas tax,  the state legislature or private donations.

“The fact that we don’t have the money available concerns me. Maybe we should rethink the size and scope of project,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said.

That would require re-starting the grant process, with no certainty that the EDA would approve another application, Meidel said. Additionally, the incubator has to be at least 35,000 square feet to make an impact in the community, Elmore said.

The council approved the increased funding by a 5 to 2 vote, with Eggers and Commissioner Kathleen Peters voting no.

NOTE: The St. Pete Catalyst has office space in the current Tampa Bay Innovation Center in downtown St. Petersburg.

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