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  1. Business

St. Petersburg chamber of commerce charts 'Grow Smarter' economic development strategy

Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — What started more than five years ago as an exploratory conversation among a handful of business leaders blossomed Friday into a full-blown community discussion of how to nurture business while working to make sure St. Peterburg's urban renaissance doesn't leave anyone behind.

"Grow Smarter" is the mantra adopted by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, and organizers said it's built on a commitment to bring many people and groups into the conversation.

"This is kind of the beginning of the next phase," chamber board chairman and Regions Bank market president Jim Donatelli told 220 entrepreneurs, civic leaders, government officials, educators and others during a half-day summit at Pinellas Technical College.

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The research that shaped a conversation into a broad-based program included 1,500 citizen surveys that asked, among other things, what potentially could make someone leave St. Petersburg.

That led to 100 community leader surveys and a dozen focus groups consisting of business and neighborhood activists.

Those, in turn, led to six areas of strategic focus: targeted job creation, awareness building, entrepreneurial growth, coordinated education and training, culture and community and district and corridor development.

The sectors where the chamber is targeting job creation include some industries you would expect — marine and life sciences, specialized manufacturing (think Jabil) and financial services. It also includes some less buttoned-down enterprises, the artsy ones, that one business recruiter said other cities might not put atop their own lists.

"That's a big part of how we got to be who we are," said J.P. DuBuque, president of the nonprofit Greater St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corp. "That's driving our community. It's not an afterthought."

Community cohesiveness is one reason Panda Doc, a San Francisco-based document automation company, decided to expand to St. Petersburg and not somewhere else. Panda Doc's Jared Fuller not only met with economic development officials but also with a dozen business owners who hosted him at a dinner and sold him on the city.

"To me, St. Petersburg felt like an early stage Austin, or Seattle, or San Francisco," Fuller said. "We look forward to doing the same (in recruiting other companies here). When people are looking to expand and grow their headquarters out of expensive cities like New York and Boston and San Francisco, what better place than St. Pete? High quality of life. Low cost of living. It's a fantastic community and we're really happy to be a part of it."