TARPON SPRINGS — Karen Lemmons is in full learning mode.
On her desk in a corner office at City Hall are brochures and pamphlets that detail the demographics of Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay area. She's walking the streets, shaking hands and listening to business owners' concerns about how best to spur economic growth in this city of 24,000.
She's meeting with each city commissioner to hear their goals for the city. Thursday she attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting and sat down with Mayor David Archie.
"A big job now is to learn as much as I can about Tarpon Springs," said Lemmons, 51. "Before I can formulate a strategy, I need a good foundation."
Two weeks ago, Lemmons moved from Machesney Park, Ill., to Tarpon Springs for the job of city economic development manager. Lemmons, who will earn about $75,000 a year, is responsible for bringing new business to Tarpon and ensuring that the ones already in town thrive and stay.
"I had never heard of Tarpon Springs before," Lemmons said. "Other people had, because of Epiphany. I enjoyed my job (in Illinois), but my husband and I were looking at moving south because we have family in Florida. I just became intrigued about the community."
Machesney Park is a village, similar in size to Tarpon, in northern Illinois. Originally from Wisconsin, Lemmons has spent much of her life in the Midwest.
She is just what Tarpon needs to pull all its economic pieces together, city leaders say.
"Before her, there were several different people trying to take a piece out of a full job to do economic development," said City Manager Mark LeCouris, who hired Lemmons. "Now, we have one person who will concentrate on nothing but that. Karen just seemed to have the total package of what we needed to get the job done and she's really hit the ground running."
About 60 people applied for the job, LeCouris said.
"Karen is going to give us the ability to look for money and grants county- and statewide and bring it back," LeCouris said. "She'll be the one to go to conventions and those types of things where developers are and say, 'Look at what Tarpon has to offer.' "
The mayor agreed.
"She is the most significant hire that we have made in a while," Archie said. "We are looking to try to do a better job as far as economic development and having a greater impact on trying to attract the right type of business to Tarpon, and give those businesses some support in terms of retention."
Lemmons, who has run four marathons, earned a bachelor of arts degree in public relations from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. From 1989 to 2001 she worked primarily in the communications field. She was director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Milwaukee Public Schools from 1998 to 2001.
From 2001 until she came to Tarpon Springs, Lemmons was the director of community development for Machesney Park. There, she was responsible for attracting and retaining businesses, improving neighborhoods and housing, managing floodplain programs and seeking federal and state grants for the community.
According to Lemmons, she helped Machesney Park raise its sales tax revenues from $1.8 million in 2001 to $3 million last year.
Tarpon Springs has all the pieces in place, said Lemmons, who has a love for "charming downtowns."
"You have the gulf frontage, there is lake frontage, a working waterfront that's still doing commercial fishing, and the historical downtown," Lemmons said. "The Sponge Docks is the most unique asset, there's an industrial area to the north and then there's a hospital and a college, all right here.
"Tarpon has a lot for a community its size. There is a lot of opportunity to work with those assets."
Commissioner Chris Alahouzos has already met with Lemmons and is interested in bringing more jobs to town.
"The economy everywhere, it's kind of difficult, so we've got to have the edge and we have to have a professional person to attract new business and help the businesses that are now here," Alahouzos said. "Having the economic development specialist is going to help us move to the next level."
Sue Thomas, president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
"What's nice is she has the experience in a town the size of ours and had a lot of the same problems and was able to solve them," Thomas said. "She's a great choice and it's going to make all the difference in the world. Karen is very down to earth, answers questions directly and there is not a lot of hype — 'This is who I am and this is what I've done' — and I appreciated that."
Lemmons understands her marching orders and is excited about the challenge.
"My job is to work with the team here to develop relationships," Lemmons said, "and to let people know we are open for business and business friendly."
To submit a letter to the editor for publication, go to tampabay.com/letters.