CLEARWATER — Call it the new tech hub of the city.
With AutoLoop CEO Steve Anderson's recent $8.4 million purchase of Clearwater Tower on Garden Avenue, the 12-story high-rise will be occupied exclusively by tech firms when his company relocates there in January.
Already in the building's top two floors is cybersecurity firm KnowBe4, which grew 2,528 percent over the past three years and brought in $6.8 million in 2015.
Stratus Video, a telehealth communications company with a 2015 revenue of $11.6 million, takes up another floor.
AutoLoop's employees will fill most of the remaining space, apart from five floors of parking, as it grows its software services and automotive marketing business.
"I have a high-rise in downtown Clearwater full of software companies, and that's pretty cool, but I think you're going to see more and more of it because they kind of feed off of each other," Anderson said. "You're starting to see that young, vibrant techy crowd, and that's exciting."
As Clearwater officials work to revive a sleepy downtown, surrounded by the potential of a walkable core district and waterfront views, a budding tech industry is bringing some optimism. There are more than 20 tech companies in downtown alone, and the hope is that more will follow.
As more young professionals locate downtown, they could help lure the retail, dining and residential investment officials have been working to attract, said Seth Taylor, director of the city's special taxing district, the Community Redevelopment Agency.
"When you look at the type of people who work in that industry, this is a lifestyle for them," Taylor said. "They are seeking out places that can support the balance between life and work. … As we get more of these tech companies and employees into downtown Clearwater, that will spawn more night life, retail, food, fitness and everything that goes into a tech ecosystem."
Taylor said he predicts a new office tower to go up in the downtown core within the next three years to accommodate growth, and the retail sector is watching.
Anderson said he chose to base his company, currently housed in the Bank of America Financial Center, steps away from Clearwater Tower, in Clearwater because the downtown already has places his employees can walk to for lunch or dinner after work.
He bought the Clearwater Tower, in partnership with investors Brian Andrus and Todd Kugler, after the family of Maurice Wilder, who died in June, decided to sell off the Wilder Corp. real estate portfolio.
With about half of Autoloop's 450 employees based in Clearwater, Anderson said the company's only looking to grow. It currently has marketing accounts with 2,700 dealerships nationwide, including Subaru, and indirectly with Toyota and Kia.
The local market already provides a solid sector of entry and mid-level talent, but specialists and engineers at times have to be recruited from the outside, Anderson said. But he's hoping for that to change in the short term.
"What Clearwater offers is a nice low cost of living and a nice quality of life for somebody who wants that," he said. "And the retention is higher for our employee base because we offer a growing, exciting company in an environment where we don't have much competition now."
But the challenge for the city will be figuring out how to recruit the retail and restaurant establishments to follow these young techies.
Consultants hired this year to design a master plan for revitalizing the downtown waterfront are expected to propose ways to do just that.
Vice Mayor Bill Jonson said it's an issue the city has tried to solve for decades, but the magnetism of a growing tech sector gives him hope.
He said the combination of high-wage jobs and a solid workforce could be enticement enough, but the downtown also has facade, build-out and density incentives that could help.
"(Tech companies are) attracting the kind of folks that, not only do we want, but seem to be perfect for Clearwater — younger folks that are interested in living downtown," Jonson said. "It's one of the bright spots in downtown Clearwater. It's the bright spot."
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.