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St. Pete leaders consider more aggressive economic development

When Magna Marque wanted to open a plant to manufacture electric bikes in St. Petersburg, it talked with city officials about renting a building in the port.

At the time, city officials were hopeful of attracting a cruise liner and were reluctant to lease the building, said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse.

The Ontario-based company, instead, opened a plant in Europe. The port building is still sitting empty.

Missed opportunities such as that one have frustrated members of City Council who say the city’s economic development office does not do enough to market the city and that when businesses do come knocking, city officials are too slow to close deals.

Now, Nurse is proposing a partnership with the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce to boost the marketing of St. Petersburg to companies across the United States. Under the agreement, the chamber would match any funding the city puts up to hire a marketer and negotiator, someone who could quickly close deals with businesses considering coming to the city.

Without that, the city could continue to lose out to other cities, including Tampa, he said.

“I’ve seen a number of occasions where we’ve missed opportunities because we didn’t close fast enough,” Nurse said. “We are not proactively recruiting businesses. We might be putting in 10 percent of the effort that Tampa is.”

The city’s economic development focus is that more jobs can be created by growing existing businesses, said Dave Goodwin, director of planning and economic development.

That makes sense because much of the county is built out, and there is little industrial land available for new warehouses and plants.

Among the firms that have grown in recent years include Valpak and Raymond James, Goodwin said. He is hopeful that Jabil Circuit will expand into land near Tropicana Field.

“You ought to be focusing 80 percent of what you do on growing those existing companies,” he said.

Under Mayor Bill Foster’s leadership, the economic development office was merged with construction services and permitting to streamline permit applications and ensure red-tape did not derail business expansion.

Most of the marketing and outreach the city does is through its partnerships with the Pinellas County Economic Development office, Enterprise Florida and the Tampa Bay Partnership.

But the city’s outreach does not match that of Tampa, which benefits from its partnership with the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation, a public-private partnership that works to attract jobs to the area.

The corporation has a $2.7-million budget, most of which comes from donations from local companies that want to see the region grow.

Roughly 60 percent of its budget goes into marketing, research and recruitment of businesses, said President and CEO Rick Homans

Recent trade missions and other trips to sell Tampa and Hillsborough included visits to New York to meet with executives from financial institutions that already have offices in the county, and an October visit to Brazil to recruit new companies, said President and CEO Rick Homans.

“It’s a challenge for a government body to go out and do the kind of marketing and outreach that we do,” Homans said.

This year, Homans also met in Baltimore with executives from Johns Hopkins Medicine. That is a cause for concern for St. Petersburg officials, who have been trying to woo the world-famous hospital and medical research giant, which recently partnered with All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

“Having them in Tampa Bay is an extraordinary asset,” Hormans said. “We want to understand what they’re doing and what their potential is in this market.”

Tampa also benefits from its port and from Tampa International Airport, which serve as economic engines for the county, Homans said.

Foster has not included funding for Nurse’s proposal, although it may be considered again at a final budget hearing Thursday.

Councilman Kim Kennedy said he wanted to hear more about the proposal before making up his mind.

“We will have the money set aside in our contingency fund we could potentially use for the economic deal with the chamber,” he said. “I want to have those discussions in a workshop setting.”

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