Last month they brought Free Hugs Day to St. Petersburg — to celebrate the city's strong sense of community.
On Tuesday, organizers from Keep Saint Petersburg Local and more than 300 business owners, community leaders and friends gathered for a festive launch party at Nova 535.
The new group already has a big fan in City Hall.
Mayor Bill Foster participated in the Free Hugs Day event and was at Tuesday's launch party to offer encouragement and support.
"I love them," he said. "I think the kind of events they do is a constant love letter to the people of our city."
KSPL provides advocacy, education and support to locally owned, independent businesses. If success could be rated by attendance alone, then this group may be well on its way. The kickoff was attended by city officials and established and new business owners.
One table held hundreds of business cards and fliers from graphic artists, bars and restaurants, mobile tanning salons, chiropractors and a pedal pub. Another table was an exercise that allowed guests to rate their favorite independent business.
The group, which officially launched in November, had about 50 members last month. They were able to match that number during the launch party in less than three hours.
"The response was so overwhelming that we're just trying to get through it all," said Olga M. Bof, president of KSPL, which wants to strengthen the local economy by encouraging residents to buy local.
"Its inclusive and apolitical — everybody rallies around each other," she said. The group's website touts that "every dollar spent with locally owned businesses generates over three times the local economic impact as compared to spending with national chains."
The plan to form the alliance — KSPL — was two years in the making and is modeled after Keep Austin Weird, Bof said.
The new nonprofit is part of the buy local movement, which is part of the American Independent Business Alliance, which has 85 affiliates across the country.
A similar alliance exists in Tampa. Carla Jimenez, co-owner of Inkwood Books, sits on the national board of AMIBA and was instrumental in getting KSPL going.
"I was thrilled to see all the young people there,'' Jimenez said. "I think they're going to do great things."
City officials and the chamber are also on board.
"This is really an organic, homegrown effort," said Sofia Sorolis, manager of the city's economic development department. "These are the businesses that really make St. Petersburg unique. We offered them what services we have and inquired how we could help."
Moving forward, Sorolis said there may be some ways the Business Assistance Center and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce can help.
So how does this alliance differ from LocalShops1 — another group that supports local shops?
"LocalShops1 is a business and we're a nonprofit,'' Bof said. "We are first and foremost an advocacy group and we're just about St. Pete."
So what's next for the alliance?
"We're not downtown-centric,''' she said. "Our limits are the same as the city."
The group is hoping to work with businesses in Midtown, West Central, Fourth Street and Tyrone districts.
Bof said the group will meet with the Council of Neighborhood Associations and is interested in starting a collaborative at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "We're getting started and we're really excited by it all."
Getting neighborhoods and local universities involved is a step in the right direction.
Good vibes for new Warehouse Arts District
Earlier that same evening, the St. Petersburg Artists' Resource Collaborative met at Duncan McClellan Glass at 2342 Emerson Ave. S.
Robert Kapusta Jr., president of the St. Pete Downtown Partnership, attended to offer support for the newly formed Warehouse Arts District.
"There's so much opportunity and so much going on," Kapusta said. "I've said this before, 90 percent of other cities would love to have what we have here."
During the meeting, Kapusta told the group of about 58 artists and city officials that their greatest advantage is that they're not on the waterfront.
"My immediate goal is to put together a brochure and website that will define the area and let folks know what can be done in the area," he said, adding that he'll be involved for three to six months to help get things started.
Kapusta is hoping the new district will exist under the umbrella of the Downtown Arts Association, since it's already a nonprofit.
"Let's see if we can combine our efforts,'' he said. "I just have to go over the legal document to make sure it can be done."
As the city launches a campaign to earn honors in AmericanStyle magazine's top 25 U.S. arts destinations for midsized cities for the third consecutive year, advances like the new arts district and KSPL can only help.
Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor. She can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8874.