St. Pete longs to bring NOAA lab, ship to Innovation District

Alan DeLisle cutline goes here and herey and herey.
Alan DeLisle cutline goes here and herey and herey.
Published Aug. 9, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — There are plenty of good signs along the city's port.

The number of vessels — from large yachts to dinner cruises — has increased. Thousands of visitors flock to waterside food truck rallies. Revenues are up.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: As more vessels dock in St. Petersburg, city hopes for a busy waterfront in its future

Then there's the biggest nautical sign of them all: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could expand into the waterfront end of St. Petersburg's "Innovation District."

In 2015, city officials learned that budget cuts and a deteriorating building could force NOAA to move its Southeast Fisheries Science Center from Miami-Dade County. St. Petersburg pitched a spot along the city's budding marine science hub, next to SRI International, at 450 Eighth Ave. SE.

In May, the city learned that NOAA also could build a facility to serve as home port to what would be the federal agency's first research vessel stationed in Florida.

Last week, the St. Petersburg City Council enthusiastically passed a symbolic resolution supporting relocating NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center to Port St. Pete, demonstrating how badly local officials want to make that happen.

The agency is charged with monitoring weather and climate change for the federal government. Relocating its fisheries center could bring up to 225 high-paying jobs to St. Petersburg.

The move is far from certain, but development administrator Alan DeLisle said the city has been preparing to help make it happen.

"We have a site just to the west of SRI, right at the St. Pete port," he said. "Until we get that call from NOAA, we are exploring and talking to our partners in terms of how do we deliver the most effective project."

DeLisle declined to offer specifics about the city's overtures, but said he was confident that St. Petersburg has much to offer the federal science agency.

"We are optimistic that we can deliver a very enticing project for NOAA," he said. "We're thrilled that there's a vessel opportunity, as well … We're very excited about having a land-based presence for NOAA and a water-based presence for NOAA."

St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership CEO Joni James organized an April trip to Washington, D.C., with representatives of the partnership and the Innovation District to discuss topics such as the relocation of the science center with elected leaders.

"We made it clear to our elected officials that we want it here and we'd like them to support those efforts," James said of the meetings with U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg.

Weeks later, the city learned of the other NOAA opportunity. Nelson announced that the Senate Commerce Committee, on which he sits, had approved a provision that could make St. Petersburg the home port for the first NOAA research vessel to be stationed in Florida. The provision ordered the Secretary of Commerce to develop a "strategic plan" for building or acquiring a NOAA station in the city. However, the measure still has to be approved by the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House and signed by the president — and then it has to be funded.

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But for port officials, it was another sign that Port St. Pete's momentum was carrying over from last year. In October, the Marine Exploration Center is scheduled to open. The port has also been hosting food truck rallies. Marina and port director Walter Miller said the July rally drew an estimated crowd of about 3,000.

"We hold them monthly, typically on the third Friday of the month," he said. "What that is doing for us is increasing the use of the port, helping people to learn about the port and a little bit about what we do and they are also learning about the Marine Exploration Center."

DeLisle traced NOAA's interest in moving its fisheries science center to St. Petersburg to an agency report.

"When they were doing that report, they brought some people into town to kind of look around at the marketplace.... They definitely appreciated the strong marine science industry culture that we have here and the university presence," he said, referring to potential neighbors such as the University of South Florida College of Marine Science and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

No other city was mentioned as a possibility in the 2015 report, he said.

"We've been busy ever since making sure that we are prepared and putting our best foot forward and making sure we can talk to NOAA directly," DeLisle said.

"The ball is in their court and we have been working on congressional authorization for us to talk with NOAA. That's where we are right now ... It's an opportunity. Things like this take time and we're going to be very patient."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.