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Port gets a boost

An unfamiliar sound rippled through downtown St. Petersburg's dilapidated port area Thursday: applause. Officials from across Tampa Bay gathered to publicly announce one of the area's worst-kept secrets. SRI International, a storied research innovator in California's Silicon Valley, will open a new branch affiliated with the University of South Florida and housed on the city waterfront. The thrill of landing a big name that brings prestige and status is deserved, even if the tangible return on a significant public investment in terms of jobs and new businesses will require a closer look at the details and years to fully pan out.

Called SRI-St. Petersburg, the enterprise will promote research, particularly in one of the university's primary specialties: marine science. "When we decided to broaden our R&D to include marine technology, Florida and the Tampa Bay area in particular became the logical choice," said Curtis Carlson, SRI's president and CEO.

USF College of Marine Science dean Peter Betzer predicted that the partnership would propel the university into the top four marine research centers in the country. "We're thrilled to be attached to the tiger," Betzer said, referring to SRI's track record for turning ideas into viable companies.

Most of the initial investment will come from the state through its economic development programs, including a $20-million award to SRI for start-up costs and a $5-million grant to the city to build the facility where a rundown warehouse now stands. Pinellas County has pledged $5-million in matching money for the construction. The city will own the building and lease it at nominal cost.

Any immediate payoff will not come in jobs or tax revenues. SRI is a tax-exempt enterprise and only 40 direct jobs will be created initially, mainly through transfers from USF's existing Center for Ocean Technology. This is more like planting a seed that supporters expect will be fruitful over time. SRI-St. Petersburg plans to reach a total of 200 jobs in the next 10 years, and past SRI research was instrumental in developing now-familiar technology such as the computer mouse and high-definition television.

Whether the new partnership will deliver on the hoped-for jobs and investment capital remains to be seen. But some immediate benefits already are obvious.

USF brings a prestigious name to the St. Petersburg campus. The state and Tampa Bay's various government and corporate interests showed a refreshing willingness to work together to seal the deal. And the St. Petersburg port, one of the few disappointments in the city's economic comeback, will get a needed boost.