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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Marine money may flow into St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — While government cuts in the past two years have hurt St. Petersburg’s marine research hub, the new year may offer opportunities to lure significant money and big names to this collection of public and private groups on the city’s waterfront.

Next fall, for example, the globally-esteemed BLUE Ocean Film Festival is coming to town and with it the kind of sponsor city leaders would love to introduce to their hip, up-and-coming downtown, which also happens to be home to cutting-edge oceanic research.

“There’s a reason Google is involved in this,” said Larry Langebrake, who heads up marine research at the Bayboro Harbor branch of the research institute SRI International.

“And to understand that those folks along with several others will be in St. Pete taking a look at what we’ve done is just incredible.”

Then there’s the research dollars, about $16 billion that oil giant BP is required to dole out over the next 10 years to universities and private firms in five Gulf Coast states affected by the 2010 oil spill.

The types of problems that settlement money is meant to solve, habitat restoration, underwater monitoring technologies, are special areas of focus for SRI and neighboring marine science labs at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Langebrake told a group of area business leaders and city officials at a forum last week.

He flashed a slide on screen showing the locations of research groups and universities affiliated with the State of Florida Institute of Oceanography, with the biggest cluster in St. Petersburg.

“The marine science complex here in St. Petersburg is well-positioned to take advantage of this,” Langebrake said in his talk at the Bayside Business Forum held Thursday at the offices of Franklin Templeton in the Carillon office park.

The forum focused on the future of the city’s cluster of marine science institutes around Bayboro Harbor drew a broad cross-section of municipal and business leaders.

Langebrake gave them a history of the downtown harbor’s growth with the Fish and Wildlife Institute establishing an office back in the 1950s after the outbreak of a particularly hazardous red tide in the Gulf of Mexico.

SRI’s entry here in 2007 was the most recent addition to the research cluster, which also includes USF, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Altogether these organizations employ about 800 researchers, technicians and other staff who are paid well above the area’s median income with an annual payroll of about $64 million, Langebrake said.

There’s reason to believe those numbers will grow in the future, Langebrake said.

St. Petersburg Partnership Director Peter Betzer, who attended the forum, made a convincing pitch to the organizers of BLUE Ocean that the Tampa Bay area was more worthy to host the international film festival than other ports like San Diego.

The payoff could be 30,000 attendees, including Hollywood celebrities and hundreds of scientists from around the world who will spend a week here next November and in coming years.

To maintain the area’s reputation as a world-class center for marine research, though, Langebrake said it’s crucial that the city continue to invest in ongoing improvements to quality of life downtown. The institutes here will also have to find more innovative ways to move their research forward, especially as some sources of outside funding become harder to get.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to keep the momentum behind the marine science district or we’re going to see it disappear,” he said.

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