The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce began its Leadership St. Pete program in 1968, as the city’s great suburban exodus was under way. Downtown was already reeling from the westward migration of retailers to shopping centers and malls, and other business would follow suit in the 1970s and ‘80s.
In 1986, when young attorney Rick Baker went through LSP, downtown St. Pete was … well, it was sleepy, a ghost town of green benches and shuttered storefronts.
“The central driving theme of the Chamber, and of Leadership St. Pete, was to try to develop a more vibrant city center – a vibrant downtown,” explains Baker, who would go on to become mayor from 2001 to 2010. “There was a time when, if you had a new restaurant open up, it was a big deal and everybody in town knew about it. Because there was literally nothing going on downtown.”
Baker is one of the leadership program’s most visible alumni. The intensive, six-month procedural includes a series of seminars on everything from city government to education, healthcare and the nonprofit sector – a “who’s who,” “what’s what” and “how do we make that happen” crash course in moving and shaking St. Petersburg.
The curriculum includes field trips to City Hall, the state capital, MacDill Air Force base and other destinations where decisions are made that affect the city and its residents.
Along the way, the 40 to 50 classmates – from diverse backgrounds, professions and opinions – share the experience, engage in discourse and gain insight into how other people think and get things done.
The commonality, Baker says, is that they’re all “go-getter type folks. They tend to be very positive, and very oriented towards the growth and the development of our city. That is, I think, the common bond that people have that are in Leadership St. Pete.”
Chamber president Chris Steinocher arrived here in the late 1980s. “There was already this eerie passion for St. Pete when there was nothing here,” he explains. “There were still St. Petersburgers that knew it, that felt it: There’s a different vibration here.”
So what, exactly, do you get for your LSP tuition fee? “That’s a great question,” says insurance broker Tee Grizzard, who’s been on the planning committee for five years, and is chairing the 50th anniversary class. “It’s a huge investment of time and it’s a huge outlay of personal commitment.
“But the return on your investment is not immediate – it’s by forming a relationship and a trust with people, that if they have a question I can be a resource. The inherent value is the relationship, and the relationship may spawn benefits that are intangible in the immediate future. It may pay dividends five, 10 years down the road.”
LSP graduate Dr. Kanika Tomalin, St. Pete’s deputy mayor, elaborates. “The program is a great place for social capital to be built and exchanged; I made connections there that have continued to serve me more than a decade later,” she says.
“It’s a great way to learn about the city, and to meet wonderful people who share that conviction to make the city a better place. It’s a great door-opener that increases access for all of its participants.”
Each class decides on a group project, a labor-intensive construction or renovation of a local nonprofit facility. The hands-on, hands-dirty projects have included wiring, plumbing, demolition and reconstruction, carpentry, painting, landscaping and more.
The “Class Project” is the physical manifestation of making St. Pete a better place, for each group of students.
“When you go through this program,” points out Steinocher, “you become such a believer in your ability to make a difference, one person at a time. Of all the programs the chamber does, this is one where you really do feel that the time together, the information provided and the insights gained, have kept a trajectory of St. Pete that we’re all beneficiaries from. Great communities have those conversations.”
Fifty years ago, he adds, the conversation was “What are we gonna do, and how are we going to do it? Now our conversations are about what is going on, and how to compliment it, support it, protect it? Success is as hard to manage as struggles. Each one comes with its own set of things you have to consider.”
Tomalin was a Leadership St. Pete student in the early ‘00s. “I left the experience with a deeper appreciation for the complexities and nuances of the various segments that comprise our city,” she explains.
“Being born and raised here, and having worked as an executive before going through LSP, it didn’t serve so much as an introduction for me as it may have for other participants. But it certainly deepened my understanding of the various programming and considerations that are driving our city forward.”
Baker is even more succinct. “I tell folks this all the time: Leadership St. Pete was the single greatest thing I did as a young man, to get me prepared to take a leadership role in the city. Without anything else being close.”
After graduation, the future mayor spent 10 years on the LSP planning committee. “And once I was on the planning committee, I got to know 40 or 50 new people every year for 10 years,” he says.
And those contacts – from a plethora of professions – stay with you for many years. After all, you all went through something together, something you all (presumably) cared deeply about.
Grizzard is keeping this in mind as he reviews applications for the 50th anniversary class, and plans a new, relevant series of speaker seminars and other events. “I can say unequivocally,” he explains, “if I reached out to anyone on the LSP alumni roster – even if I don’t have a direct relationship with them – that’s a vet right there. That’s ‘What can I help you with?’
“And St. Pete’s a small big town.”
Read the first part of this series here.