St. Petersburg has no shortage of cheerleaders who work tirelessly to tell the world about the city’s many charms and advantages. J.P. DuBuque doesn’t wax poetic about the beaches, the warm weather or the burgeoning arts community, although those things always figure somehow in his economic pitch.
As president of the Greater St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corporation, DuBuque is charged with attracting business to the area – almost exclusively tech jobs, in keeping with the Chamber of Commerce’s “Grow Smarter” strategy – and helping new companies get what they need to fit in and succeed.
“Every community has to have economic development at its forefront,” DuBuque, 49, explains. “Whatever their industries are – and some cities may only have one industry – you have foster and cultivate that industry to make sure that it doesn’t let you down.”
The St. Pete EDC was created in 2016, to bolster, aid and bring business to the area. DuBuque, who’d spent four years as VP of Finance and Administration at the Tampa/Hillsborough EDC, was the first and only choice for the lead position.
“When I started this job,” he says, “I had this great idea that we were going to do this very systematically, that there was going to be a process involved. We were going to start off by building the organization, make sure that was strong and healthy and well-defined. And then we would move into establishing a marketing plan. And the marketing plan would then lead to business development. And that we would do this over the course of a couple of years.”
That’s not what happened.
“I believe on Day Two there was a big hand grenade thrown into my process – but it was a good hand grenade, in that we started talking to companies right off the bat. Local companies, and companies that are moving in.”
After 18 months, DuBuque says, “we’ve already helped a handful of companies, and we’ve got a healthy pipeline of additional companies. So we didn’t have to wait two or three years. We’re already doing it.”
One of the office’s success stories, Pennsylvania-based digital marketing company MXTR Automation, opened a location in St. Pete in 2017.
The company originally considered settling in the Ft. Lauderdale area. One of its investors, a resident of that city, was pushing hard for it.
Recalls DuBuque: “One of the owners’ kids came here on vacation, and came back and said ‘Dad, I want to live there!’ And so they gave us a look. And we had to compete. We had to fight. We had to show them that financially, this is a better option; from a talent standpoint, this is a better option … it was a very competitive process.”
MXTR, he adds, is “a fairly small company. They’re scaling up, but they’re probably never going to be real big. But you grow 10, 15 jobs here that allow people to make a good living, that’s transformational for those folks.”
In early May, DuBuque and St. Pete mayor Rick Kriseman led a small delegation to San Francisco, where they had 11 meetings with tech companies, talking up St. Pete’s impressive talent pool, business opportunities, affordable real estate and quality of life (that’s where the beaches and warm weather came in handy).
Many of those they met with, says DuBuque, already had Florida on their radar – but not St. Petersburg.
Which was how he and Kriseman knew they had their work cut out for them. Further exploratory development adventures are in the planning stage.
Maryland natives, JP DuBuque and his wife Patti moved to Pinellas County in 2012, after she was offered a “career-changing, life-changing opportunity” with Bank of the Ozarks. He’d been the senior administrator at a CPA firm, and figured he’d find a similar position in Florida.
“Everybody I meet has their own St. Pete story – how did they choose it?” DuBuque explains. “We came from a small town, 28,000 people, and St. Pete’s 260,000 with a metro of 3 ½ million, almost. We never thought that this would be it, but when we got here … oh, my goodness! What is this?”
It was June, and sitting outside at 400 Beach, the couple enjoyed dinner and local craft beer; they gazed over at the marina, and the Vinoy, and sighed. The decision was made.
Not long afterwards, J.P. and Patti were attending a Buccaneers game. In the next seats were Rick Homans, the CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough EDC, and his wife. They all got to talking.
“A month later I was working for him,” DuBuque says. And when Homans left, he was named interim CEO. “The truth of the matter is that six years ago, I had no idea what economic development was,” he explains. “So when people don’t know it, I’m OK with that.”
(“What we do is all about driving economic prosperity through helping companies create jobs. At its core, that’s what we do.”)
The Greater St. Pete EDC is a public/private partnership; twenty percent of its operating budget comes from the City and the Chamber of Commerce, with the rest provided by several dozen private organizations.
Growth, DuBuque insists, must be monitored and laser-focused. St. Pete’s geographic stats – with Tampa Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other – means that the city can’t sprawl uncontrolled.
“I can tell you that the business leadership and the elected officials in both the city and the county are very well aware of the geographical constraints that we have,” he says. “So when they make decisions, they’re very thoughtful in nature. Not everybody will agree with it, but they have a reason for making the decisions they do.”
In the meantime, DuBuque, his wife and their two young sons have settled into a busy and contented life in the area. Among other things, he coaches for Tampa Bay Youth Lacrosse and is a volunteer for the Gasparilla Music Foundation’s Recycled Tunes initiative.
A longtime fan of Jimmy Buffett, Americana music and “jam bands” like the Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic, DuBuque is a rabid concert-goer. “I put a lot of myself into my family,” he says. “I put a lot of myself into my job. And I need to get refilled. That passion needs to get refilled. And for me, it’s live music.”
Music and the other arts, in fact, are never far from J.P. DuBuque’s thoughts. Lately, he’s bemoaning the loss of arts education in schools, and what that might mean for the business environment.
“I think the arts encourage and foster creativity and innovation, in a way that core curriculum courses don’t,” he explains. “There’s really no creative thinking that goes into it. But what is the thing that every employer says they want? Creative thinking.
“That’s what every employer wants. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the person answering the phone, the person designing software or the person running the company. They want creative thinking. How are we going to provide that?”
That’s another conversation, for another time. The most pressing concern is focusing on St. Pete’s target industries, making sure that the city is a warm and welcoming place for businesses with growth potential … and for those who work in those industries and want a cool place to live.
“Right now,” says DuBuque, “think about the fact that roughly 50,000 jobs are open in the Tampa Bay metro, we are at a four percent unemployment rate. Which is near full employment. There are plenty of jobs that pay well here.”
Plus, the beaches …