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Downtown St. Petersburg, a high-tech hotbed?

SRI director Larry Langebrake, left, and Downtown Partnership chief Peter Betzer stand near SRI’s new site on Eighth Avenue SE.

LARA CERRI | Times

SRI director Larry Langebrake, left, and Downtown Partnership chief Peter Betzer stand near SRI’s new site on Eighth Avenue SE.

Peter Betzer recalls a time when St. Petersburg could be accused of rolling up its streets at night.

That was nearly 40 years ago, when Betzer arrived at University of South Florida's College of Marine Sciences to teach chemical oceanography in 1971.

Now the head of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, the nonprofit organization tasked with wooing development downtown, Betzer says the city is the furthest it has ever been from "the town of the newly wed and the living dead," as described by Jack Kerouac back in the day.

"Even eight, nine years ago, travel reviewers looked down their noses at us. They were dismissive — 'Sun, sand, that's all they got,' " Betzer said. "Now, they're talking about a vibrant arts community, cultural scene, the great waterfront."

But three months into his tenure with the partnership, the recently retired USF marine sciences dean says downtown St. Petersburg now faces some challenges: shedding its old reputation and living up to its potential to be one of the most energetic spots for high-tech business in the country.

Betzer said that many in the business world haven't seen what the city has grown into in recent years, but when they do, they're impressed.

After a recent tour of downtown, Betzer said that one real estate professional remarked, "I didn't know you had all this down here."

As an example of downtown's potential to draw high-paying, high-tech jobs, Betzer points to the thriving marine research and development sector, which he played a large part in building as a USF dean.

"I'd love to see a thriving technological group. I think that's under way," Betzer said.

Clustered around the USF College of Marine Sciences south of downtown, five state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, have set up facilities.

And research and development heavyweight, computer mouse and HDTV inventor SRI International has moved in and is set to construct a two-story, 37,000-square-foot facility next year.

Larry Langebrake, the director of the SRI Marine Technology Program and former head of USF's Center for Ocean Technology, said St. Petersburg's image is evolving.

"The downtown partnership for a long time worked closely with the city to diversify the economy," Langebrake said. "Now, not only do you have SRI here, but you have an environment attractive to other companies."

That snowball effect — industry leaders building on one another, as in Silicon Valley — is what Betzer is hoping for St. Petersburg. But the 65-year-old career academic knows that growing when resources are scarce isn't easy.

"You'd have to be crazy to not realize there are tough economic times facing our state on several levels," Betzer said.

In fact, the state innovation fund that helped draw Silicon Valley's SRI to St. Petersburg with a $20-million incentive was divested this year, making it more difficult to lure similar business in the future.

Part of Betzer's solution to stimulate growth, however, stems from an unlikely place: making life easier for teachers.

"If we as a community don't do something for teachers in the near future, I don't think they'd have a place to live in St. Petersburg," Betzer said.

"Whether you like it or not, Florida's educational system has a bad reputation in the rest of the country. People who could take jobs here, they say, 'My kids are really important, and the system just isn't good enough.' "

Downtown St. Petersburg, a high-tech hotbed? 05/31/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 4, 2008 10:06am]

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