DADE CITY — Inside a bland conference room, three consultants in coats and ties showed Dade City leaders the things they'll need to do differently to become a go-to place for young, creative geniuses in the next 20 years.
Don't fear change.
Don't glare when bearded, long-haired guys in flip-flops walk into your restaurant.
Get a nightlife.
Make liberal use of social media.
"That fits our demographic," said Matt Melo, 23, of Pride Consulting, who, with partners Christian Gavilanez and John Lax, presented a report last week to members of the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is seeking to help the city reach the next level in terms of future economic development.
To get some low-cost help, the chamber hired Pride Consulting. Like other companies, it employs business types in suits who provide reports gleaned from research. What's different is that the suits are worn by students at Saint Leo University.
"We think we have some pretty exceptional kids," said Lax, a business professor and faculty sponsor for Pride. "We picked some of the best of them to be in Pride, and we are very fortunate they have chosen to do so."
The firm began about a year ago with a soft launch. This past fall, the group advertised through the Internet and word of mouth. Lax said the firm was formed at the suggestion of Michael Nastanski, dean of the university's Donald R. Tapia School of Business.
"He introduced the idea that we want to try to get the students the absolute richest experience they can while they are in the business school," Lax said.
Nastanski said the idea came about five years ago as part of a strategic plan. It's modeled after a similar program at a university in Brazil.
"We wanted to create a way that the students could work on real-time projects with businesses," he said. "We want our students to leave here ready to make an immediate contribution to an employer."
Pride works just like a firm in the real world, with real deadlines. The students meet in small teams on their own time to do the actual work, though the larger group sometimes gathers for general meetings. In return for their work, they receive a modest stipend.
Pride, aptly named given the school's Lion mascot, performs a host of projects for businesses, mostly small ones or startups that lack large budgets. Also on its client list are government-related groups such as the Tampa Bay Partnership, which the firm is helping develop a website dashboard. For nonprofit agencies, Pride works free of charge. The company has about 15 members, who include undergraduate and graduate students from various majors. Members are broken up in teams and assigned to various clients based on their areas of expertise.
Projects might include developing a marketing plan, designing a website or researching and preparing reports.
"A lot of people who studied marketing 10, 20 or 30 years ago say, 'We like the fact that students come in with fresh eyes to tell us how to use social media or a website,' " Nastanski said.
"Young people know how to take that into the future where we can't."
For the Dade City chamber, the firm found several small cities that had become meccas for young entrepreneurs or artists and were similar to Dade City about 20 years ago.
Southlake, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth, has become an upscale community with 67 percent of its residents holding college degrees. Carmel, Ind., was rated No. 1 on CNN Money's Best Places to Live and boasts the second highest concentration of office workers in Indiana. Dahlonega, Ga., consistently lands on best places to retire lists because of its arts scene, while Sedona, Ariz. is also known for its festivals.
The project team, which on that day was minus two members who were studying for exams or playing on the lacrosse team, said Dade City has a lot going for it to become like those communities, such as low taxes and affordable living as well as a walkable downtown. It also is close to a large city and has access to a host of colleges and universities.
What it doesn't have is a coffee shop with Wi-Fi that is open at 5 a.m. or fun activities after dark — amenities that typically draw young people.
Daytime tourism is "extremely limiting," the group said.
Dade City also has to find a way to compete with nearby Wesley Chapel, which boasts a large shopping center, restaurants and a movie theater.
The key, they said the other cities told them, was to act quickly.
"Time is not on your side," Lax warned.
Dade City leaders, who will choose a model soon, said they were impressed with the group's work.
"They're very factual, very honest," chamber director John Moors said.
Melo said he enjoyed the project and that as a Dade City resident, holds a stake in the outcome.
"I want to stay in the area," he said.
His attitude, Nastanski said, is the goal.
"They get a great result from the work and the students get a great experience working with them. We want to be engaged with the community and create jobs."