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St. Petersburg leaders dream of 'ripple effects' from a possible NOAA station in town

The vacant land on the right, next to SRI International, has been mentioned as a possible site for a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility in St. Petersburg's port area. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
The vacant land on the right, next to SRI International, has been mentioned as a possible site for a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility in St. Petersburg's port area. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jul. 12, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Alan DeLisle is more than ready to help if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decides to locate one of its research facilities in St. Petersburg.

"If they called me tomorrow, I think it would take all of two days to finalize the project," said DeLisle, the city's development administrator. "We're ready to go. We're ready to compete with anybody, any time. We're excited about it and we're waiting for the call."

A May announcement by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's office about a potential NOAA station on St. Petersburg's waterfront has city and civic leaders buzzing about the possibilities.

Although additional approvals would be needed, the Senate Commerce Committee, of which Nelson is a member, has passed a measure ordering the government to develop a plan for such a facility. In addition, NOAA has conducted studies over the past two years that have noted it is exploring options to move its Miami area station, and St. Petersburg is mentioned as a potential new site.

The action by the Senate Commerce Committee would have to be approved by the full Senate and House and be signed by the president.

The Miami facility, more than 50 years old, is staffed by 120 full-time employees and 30 contractors, according to NOAA spokesperson John Ewald. It was established to work closely with the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

DeLisle said St. Petersburg is not looking to take the Miami facility and that he's been told some parts of the lab will need to stay in Miami. But the possibility of a significant NOAA presence in St. Petersburg is exciting, he said.

"St. Pete is basically saying, 'look, if there's a need for different space to meet the needs of NOAA, we can accommodate that, but we're not in the market of taking away from Miami,'" he said.

The agency would work out the logistics, but DeLisle said he's been told that a facility in St. Petersburg could have 150 to 200 employees. Whether any of those come from Miami would be up to the agency, he said. But such a move, he said, could help nurture one of the city's targeted industries in its Grow Smarter plan: marine and life sciences.

"The more capacity we have to do quality studies and quality research in our Innovation District with powerhouses like Johns Hopkins and NOAA, that's an economy that's going to be stable for many, many years," he said, referring to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital. "So it's a big deal."

While talks with the agency have been under way for a couple of years, it was a recent study identifying St. Petersburg as an option that propelled the city to move forward, DeLisle said. A team from the agency came to check out a possible site at the city port near USF College of Marine Science and SRI International, two hubs for marine and life science. The parcel is big enough for a building of 45,000 to 50,000 square feet, DeLisle said.

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"We have done the research and laid out the building and laid out the cost, and we understand how that could fit right there," he said.

Joni James, CEO of St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, said the facility would fit in well with the city's Innovation District.

"If you get enough smart people working together and talking a lot, new ideas emerge," she said. "Bringing in 100-plus more highly educated, thoughtful people into our community is going to have incredible ripple effects."

The partnership has played a role in bringing groups like the marine science college to St. Petersburg and was instrumental in helping the city establish the Innovation District, she said. It has continued to support bringing NOAA to the city as well.

In April, a group from the partnership traveled to Washington, D.C., to express support for a NOAA facility in St. Petersburg. James said the group called on senators Nelson and Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.

It's possible that both Florida cities could benefit, she said.

"We actually think both communities, meaning Miami and St. Pete, can win in this."

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