ST. PETERSBURG — When business leaders scuttled proposed building restrictions downtown and along the waterfront earlier this summer, it was the work of an organization that had become a stranger at City Hall — the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We rallied pretty quickly," said Ross Preville, vice president of investments for St. Pete Wealth Management Group of Raymond James & Associates. "It's been awhile since we did that, but I'd expect you're going to see more of that."
The man leading the way: Chris Steinocher, who was named president and chief executive officer of the chamber in January.
"When I got here and started attending meetings about the Pier and the city charter, people asked, 'Where has the chamber been? We've already had dozens of meetings,' " Steinocher said. "I didn't have an answer. All I know is that I have a lot of work to do if I'm going make the chamber relevant again."
Like elsewhere, the economy hasn't been kind to the chamber. Since last year, the nonprofit has laid off 10 of its 17 staff members as the organization's finances and membership dropped. Part of the decline was blamed on the chamber's direction under chief executive John Long, who stepped down in July last year after four years as chief.
Some say Steinocher already has ushered in a new era of chamber activism.
"Over the past few years, there had been a diminution of the chamber's participation in issues," said council member Herb Polson. "Under Mr. Long, we didn't see the chamber activity as strong as it had been in the past. Chris has already made that change. It's refreshing."
But don't expect a scorched earth campaign as he pushes a chamber agenda, Steinocher said. In a city still scarred from previous battles that pitted neighborhoods against business interests, such as the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays stadium debacle, Steinocher said he favors promoting quality-of-life issues such as better transit and parks.
"Some people say my job is to slay dragons," he said. "And I always reply that it's not. It's to build bridges over moats. I strongly feel that when you get everyone to the table, we're not that different."
Steinocher agreed to sit down with the Times this week to talk about some of the pressing issues facing the city and where he stands.
What's the future of transit in St. Petersburg?
I'm worried about the future of Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (the county's transit agency). Its revenue model is decaying. If they don't have the resources they need, that's a problem, a game changer. We have to look at merging PSTA and (Hillsborough's transit agency) so that we make transit in Tampa Bay more efficient. Merging the two just makes sense.
Should the City Council approve a deal that would allow outdoor advertising companies to erect one digital billboard for every 10 traditional signs they remove, a plan some neighborhood leaders oppose?
I'm not convinced it will pass Thursday. It's not something we'll go to the wall on. I get why some people oppose this. It's just that the city cut a great deal and it's a way we can control our own destiny. Without this agreement, I'm afraid the state will rule for us and give us a deal that won't be as favorable.
What's to be done about BayWalk, the shopping and entertainment complex that sits near empty?
We're meeting with Colliers Arnold (which is listing the property) on Thursday to get a sense of what's going on. It's ironic that you have such a thriving Beach Drive, and people wander up there and wonder what happened. It looks so beautiful and it's so empty. You can't say everything is going great and yet you have this wonderful facility that sits empty. It's going to take a village to turn BayWalk around. I'd love to do events over there, and hope that we'll get to promote the heck out of it.
What should be done about the stalemate between city officials and the Tampa Bay Rays over a new stadium?
In 2008, when they rolled out plans for the (waterfront) stadium, we didn't handle it properly. They got all this abuse from everyone. It scared the heck out of the Rays. They realized they didn't know this community. We pushed them too far away. Now we just need to give it time. We don't have an economy that's favorable for anything right now, but communication has to improve. It's not healthy right now. But that will improve over time. Let's stop the rumor mill and let's start the conversation.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8037.