Local networking in St. Petersburg gets boost

Published May 27, 2012

Support for everything local and independent is trending in the Sunshine City. In recent years, new efforts have sprouted in support of small businesses and local artists. I Love Downtown St. Petersburg, I Love the 'Burg, the Best of St. Pete, and Keep St. Pete Local are just a few outfits offering networking opportunities for businesses and patrons of the arts, entertainment and hospitality industries. But two initiatives launched last week intend to add new wrinkles to the networking efforts.

One looks to tap into the talented pool of artists and musicians in the area to create synergy for a series of performances aimed at bringing people from all walks of life together.

"I want St. Pete to be a point of destination to learn more about creative expression through the Quiet Calling series," said Fred Johnson, a local vocalist and percussionist.

Johnson, an accomplished musician who has toured with the likes of B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Chick Corea and Miles Davis, is a consultant with Intersections International in New York, which works to bring people of conflict together.

"I spend a lot of time in the Middle East, particularly in Israel. Out of that experience came this collection of quiet callings," he said.

But Johnson said he has a vision for hosting future events here.

"St. Pete is home, but the world is my palette," said the New Jersey native, who first arrived here to perform at the Hurricane Restaurant on St. Pete Beach 33 years ago.

The series, launched Tuesday evening at the Palladium Theater, was a collaborative effort between Johnson and Ann Marie Cash, general manager of, an Internet-based radio station. That event featured Johnson, New York pianist Daniel Kelly and contemporary artist Marc Levasseur.

"It is the first time the three of us had done something like that," said Johnson. "Daniel and I have performed together in other settings, but nothing like that night."

The evening of inspirational poetry, music and visual art — and audience participation — was more experience than performance. By the end of the evening, there were two beautiful abstract paintings on the stage. For future events, the artwork will be auctioned to raise money for local charities and expenses.

The series is a global one, with performances scheduled for New York, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Israel.

For now, the plan is to schedule 52 quiet callings. Absent of live performances, residents can tune in to Johnson's show, Spirit Nation, at noon Tuesdays on

The other new network, the Unchained Gang, kicked off Thursday evening at the Hideaway at 1756 Central Ave.

According to the group's website, members are "the everyday people who support the "unchained" business owners and independent artists of our community."

"The Unchained Gang is a local network that brings together local businesses, independent artists and local causes (nonprofits)," said Peter Motzenbecker, a co-founder of the effort.

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The basic premise is to assist struggling businesses by hosting events that will draw the masses there. The events will have a dual role: help struggling businesses and raise money and awareness about lesser-known nonprofits while being entertained by a local artists and musicians.

How did such a novel idea come about?

"Conversations started a year ago. … That's how long it's taken to get from an idea to a launch," said Motzenbecker. "My business partner, John Lobianco, was planning an event and the idea came up: 'Let's consider having it at an independent business, instead of a chain.' "

When Motzenbecker shared the plan with neighbors, Nicole and John Kelly, owners of the Hideaway, Nicole offered to build the website if the group would promote local artists and music.

It was that simple.

To see it in action, I attended Thursday's kickoff event.

In addition to live music, representatives from the Suncoast Center Inc. were on hand to talk about the nonprofit that includes rape crisis and children's advocacy centers. Suncoast provides prevention and treatment services to 27,000 area residents annually.

According to Motzenbecker, a financial adviser with UBS, a very loose and informal group of six people, including Lobianco's daughter, Rachel, started the Unchained Gang.

The group's website,, is a work in progress, and they can also be found on Facebook.

Motzenbecker and Lobianco say they are hopeful that groups and individuals will join the effort and provide input about small nonprofits, venues and businesses to hold future events.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at or at (727) 893-8874.