Jeff Hearn of Raymond James & St. Pete Downtown Partnership
Episode 001: Inside St. Pete Philanthropy with Jeff Hearn
On the cusp of the rising tides of innovation in St. Petersburg’s business community, Jeff Hearn, Senior Vice President and Managing Director at Raymond James Financial, is a veritable trove of St. Petersburg knowledge. Jeff sits down with our host, Joe Hamilton, to swap St. Petersburg stories, talk philanthropic ventures, and share investment wisdom for a start-up friendly city. Join us as we take a look at Hearn’s indelible mark on St. Petersburg’s business community - including his current venture with the St. Pete Downtown Partnership, his past with Foundations for a Healthy St. Petersburg, and the road that lies ahead.
- Smart investing in St. Pete land brought the St. Pete Downtown Partnership into being, they turn around and invest money in the city's start-ups.
- St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership takes a "rifle shot, rather than a shotgun" approach to business, investing with accuracy and depth into St. Pete's most promising prospects - as far ranging as housing a future Cuban consulate.
- St. Pete's oldest sewage treatment plant, next to Albert Whitted Airport, almost became an urban fish farm through innovative thinking by the Downtown Partnership.
- The Partnership finds ways for business districts to collaborate, pool resources, and work smarter. Think: Warehouse Arts District & Innovation District
- Hearn believes that smart, civically-minded investment portfolios that include investments in start-ups are the way to growing and elevating the business community.
- The Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete's goal? Make non-profits work better - together. They surveyed non-profits throughout St. Pete and found many were providing the same services. Now they're helping non-profits come together for the benefit of the whole community.
- "The upside-down pyramid pier, that was iconic as a building and there were a lot of pictures and post cards of that. But what you remembered was the building. The pier we have planned now is probably not going to be that same kind of iconic, picturesque building. But it’s going to be a place for events. It’s going to be a place you’ll remember for what you did there."
- Mover & Shaker Shout-out: "I’d like to give a shout out to Joni James [St. Pete Downtown Partnership] for her hard work and what she’s doing for the city. She loves St. Petersburg, she could work anywhere in the world. She’s a very talented person and she wants to be here."
Somebody asked me, ‘Why are you doing all you’re doing?’ I said, ‘Well I really want to make this a place our kids want to come back to.' So, I’ve got one who’s moved back to town and he said ‘Dad, you did a pretty good job.’
Today’s guest is Jeff Hearn. From his full-time gig as Senior Vice President and Managing Director at Raymond James to St. Pete community man extraordinaire, there’s just no slowing Hearn down. Due to his never-ending involvement in betterment of the St. Petersburg community, he’s had a hand in many of St. Pete’s most well-known initiatives – ranging from finance to healthcare, art, and marine science. His interests vary so much, in fact, that he once starred on his own local cooking show, Eat Cheap, Drink Rich. Fueled by a drive to leave a legacy in creating a better city for his children to come back to, he’s a man of many talents and he shows no signs of stopping.
He’ll help separate fact from fiction, and parse out the origins of the numerous organizations he’s touched in the last many years. including the St. Pete Downtown Partnership and the various projects and businesses that have spawned from it. We’ll delve into the unique role of the Downtown Partnership and how it supports organizations and ideas as wide ranged as fish farms, arts initiatives, tech startups, and innovation. Their approach, Jeff comments, is akin to “a rifle shot, not a shotgun.” From there, Jeff will share his advice on how to make St. Pete’s start-up business ventures more viable and how personal investment portfolios can play a hand. He will even share a story about his father’s role in the building of the old Pier and how he began to get on board with the construction of the new one.
I'd like to see us create a culture of that's just part of how we invest is that we include those [start-ups] in our investment portfolios and from time to time it's a civic investment and other times it’s a for-profit investment. Sometimes you just want to help out and do a little something. Other times, you're going to want to make money on this and their responsibility is to grow and to build and to make us money on our return on our investment.
Table of Contents:
(0:00 – 0:45) Introduction
(0:45 – 4:53) Downtown Partnership
(4:53 – 8:04) Sewage Plant Reuse
(8:04 – 8:31) St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District
(8:31 – 9:39) Innovation District
(9:39 – 10:36) Cuban Initiative
(10:36 – 10:59) Priatek
(10:36 – 12:08) Lumastream
(12:08 – 19:18) Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete
(19:18 – 22:04) Increasing Local Startups
(22:04 – 23:45) Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete (cont.)
(23:45 – 25:50) New Initiatives
(25:50 – 28:59) The Pier
(28:59 – 30:06) Conclusion
Produced by Phil Steuer
Joe: Hey, this is Joe Hamilton and I’m here with Jeff Hearn, the senior vice president of investments and managing director at Raymond James. It’s a pleasure, thank for stopping in.
Jeff: What a delight. It’s great to be here with you, Joe.
Joe: I’ve always valued you as a great trove of St. Pete knowledge and you’re very civically minded. You’re active in a lot of great causes both on the investment end and on the philanthropic end. One of them being the Downtown Partnership. I’m a big fan of that organization. I was excited when we just got to join the group and also then start to work on some of the marketing elements with Joni. So that was a real pleasure and something we had pursued for a while so thank you for giving us that opportunity.
Jeff: You bet. You’re doing a great job, we love having you as members, and Joni is certainly a champ for our organization.
Joe: Can you give us a little history of The Downtown Partnership for people who aren’t familiar with it and maybe just heard of it? Talk about how it came to be – and there were some early land purchases that seated it.
Jeff: So, the way this happened was, there was vacant land near the university and some of our forefathers saw that that was going to be important to the growth of the university. The Downtown Partnership could acquire the land, but the state couldn’t get all the bills and the funding through for a couple of years so they were going to have to sit on it and the organization wasn’t really big enough to do it itself so they borrowed the money and many of the board members signed for it and guaranteed the loan. And so then after a couple of years the state had allocated enough money and they bought the land back from us to build some of University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus.
Joe: And about what year was that? Or what decade even?
Jeff: The 80’s. Early 80’s.
Joe: Do you remember about how much land it was?
Jeff: I don’t remember. It was good for a couple buildings. Several buildings, yeah.
Joe: And so, is that kind of right in the main campus proper area or across what is 2nd street there?
Jeff: It was part of the main campus area.
Joe: That is important land, then.
Jeff: So that worked out great for everybody, and then later on everybody’s heard marine science issues with Woods Hole (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) up in Massachusetts or in New England and so we had an opportunity. They wanted to relocate here. And so, we helped renovate a building for them and continued to operate as their landlord. So, it’s USGS (U.S Geological Survey) has built a huge complex here and has brought a lot of marine science jobs to St. Petersburg. So that’s been something else that we’ve been involved with for probably twenty years.
Joe: So, the partnership was instrumental in bringing NOAA down here. And that property is still owned by the partnership?
Jeff: There’s actually a little more complicated ownership with USF and The Downtown Partnership. But we actually end up as the property manager. So, they pay us rent every year, one big check a year, and we take care of all the maintenance and the utility bills and things like that for them. And as it turns out, we’ve done such a good job they’ve continued to renew their lease and we’re one of the lowest cost properties they have in the country, because we don’t need to make a lot money on them and we try to be more efficient. We put in shades and new windows and things like that to keep the cost down and they love that. We’ve been recognized for that over the years.
Joe: Wow, who would’ve thought it? Downtown Partnership is a (laughs) a beacon of landlord-ship.
Jeff: Well David Bretz has been managing that property for a long time so shout-out to him. He’s been a great, great leader of that.
Joe: Is that the only arrangement like that that the partnership has or are there other properties in the portfolio?
Jeff: Well the other little piece that financially that was sort of interesting is some years ago we received shares in a marine science company that was starting out. We had done a lot of work to help them get on their feet and they gave us a few shares of stock and some ten or fifteen years that few thousand dollars turned into well over a hundred thousand dollars when they were acquired. And so, we earmarked that money only to be invested in startup companies. So now we have four or five young St. Petersburg companies that we’ve invested in and try to help support them and introduce them to board members or future customers or try them help them along.
Joe: What are the most recent ones?
Jeff: We own Priatek and SavvyCard. Those are a couple of them, and Lumastream – the granddaddy, if there is such a thing. You know, having a life of four, five, six, or seven years is pretty long in startup-ville. So, we’ve invested in those companies. We also have one, the product they have is called Grouper Check and it’s where you test fish to make sure it’s really what it says it is and they’ve got a test that can do that in about forty-five minutes. It’s a company that spawned, no pun intended, out of University of South Florida Marine Science here in St. Petersburg.
Joe: There’s probably some logical tie back to some of the previous leadership’s interest in marine biology.
Jeff: Right, right.
Joe: Mr. Betzer
Jeff: Peter Betzer was for thirty-five years the dean for the USF Marine Science Department. And their campus is in the St. Petersburg campus even though it’s truly affiliated with the Tampa campus. So that was one of those weird combinations. But yeah, Peter has been a great advocate for marine sciences and The Downtown Partnership has support several scholarships every year. Several, well I don’t even remember, it’s a couple hundred thousand dollars a year of scholarships. So, he was certainly a big advocate for that and even predecessors, people before Peter, were very supportive for the marine sciences.
Joe: One interesting project that I heard a little rumbling about was converting the old sewage treatment plant into a fish farm. Where did that end up? I know there was some initial research maybe or….?
Jeff: Yeah, well what happened was one of our board members saw in the city budget, they allocated two million dollars to close that down and basically turn it into a vacant lot. Then we’d figure out what we’d wanted to do with it. Put new airplane hangars up, put a new restaurant in a new terminal for the airport or something. Who knew? And he thought, ‘You know, two million dollars. You could really do something with that piece of property. So, he got together with a couple of people and started asking around ‘Do you know anything that we could do? Do you have any ideas? You think of this…’ and eventually he had maybe six or eight or ten people that were, sort of, brainstorming for him. And I literally took it to my dinner table with my kids and said ‘Hey, what would you do about this? What do you think would be a cool idea for this?’ and they started researching and Googling and inter-netting and, you know, finding ideas and daydreaming a little. We’d thought that there’s been museums made of it, there’s been housing made out of these big round sewer tanks that sounds kind of disgusting but once you clean up and paint them, playgrounds have been made from them. One of the things that came along was making a fish farm. So, we helped paid for a grant to do a little study on that to see if that was really viable and The Downtown Partnership found out that it was viable and there were people interested in it. So, we took that pretty far down the road to the point of having contracts and I think there’s a patented or trademark a Ruby Red Fish that they were going to grow in those tanks that would be a specialty red fish that you could have in restaurants and they’d sell all over the Southeast.
Joe: Wow, who would’ve thought that might be the way we’d put St. Pete on the map, with our sewage plant red fish.
Jeff: That’s right (laughs). But anyway, we did help pilot that and shepherd that along to try to get them to reuse that without having to tear it down.
Joe: Obviously, with some of the overflow issues, is that sort of what put the hold on that or where did that sort of end up?
Jeff: Yeah, the thought was maybe to re-open that plant. They had shut it down and as I understand it they filled some of the pipes with concrete so there was no flow at all and they were getting ready to start cleaning it up. And then when the sewage dumps into the bay happened they just said stop everything, we may need to open this back up and use it again. And again, from what I understand is this may not be enough to really make that big of a difference. The existing plants have a lot more room and opportunity to expand and use deep water wells and things like that.
Joe: So theoretically, it’s possible when they see a fish from there some day.
Jeff: Sure, it could come back to life.
Joe: Cool. I think that’s a fun project. Isn’t there a processing or packaging plant right there on 4th street, right?
Jeff: There’s one right across the harbor and there was even some talk of putting a big pipe in.
Joe: Huh, pipe the fish over. (Laughs)
Jeff: Send the little fish on a ride through a pipe down under the bayou there and the harbor and over to the other side where the processing plant is. I’m not sure that’ll happen or not but that was kind of fun to think about. You’re bringing up some great examples though. That’s the sort of thing the St. Pete Partnership does, is in contrast to a Downtown Waterfront Master Plan where there’s thirty organizations involved and everybody’s got their opinion. They’ve got lots of committees. The St. Pete Partnership, even though that’s a very important part of downtown, wouldn’t have much more to add. One more voice isn’t going to really add to that. There was nobody looking at that piece of property where that sewer plant was. Its downtown but there’s no advocate for it. There’s nobody investigating is that the best use of two million dollars. The St. Pete Warehouse Arts District was something else. One of our board members, Rob Kapusta, said ‘You know, these guys need to be organized. They’re great artists but they don’t have a real business plan and how can we help then coordinate their plans and their evenings and their shows because they all do them at the same time so they have they have a lot of traffic instead one having one one day and one having one another day. So, The St. Pete Downtown Partnership helped champion that and launched it into its own not-for-profit with its own board and they’ve gotten grants from the state since then. And the Innovation District has been our latest one. So, The Innovation District is a group where we’ve got University of South Florida St. Pete, we’ve SRI, we’ve got Johns Hopkins for children, we’ve got Bayfront Medical Center, we’ve got The Poynter Institute, among others. There’s so many gathered in that one little area.
Joe: A lot of brainpower.
Jeff: Lots and lots and so we invited a bunch of them to lunch and said, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about what you’re doing and what could we do different? How could we work together?’ and that was about three years ago. Now it’s got its own board, its own 501C3. You got people paying membership dues and…
Joe: Just signed on a new executive director, I believe.
Jeff: Right, yep. Just hired a new executive director.
Joe: Which is great. Then there’s an innovation center, right? That’s the folks from Tec Garage or…?
Jeff: Yeah, it’s that same group. That’s on 4th street and I think its 11th avenue south. The city traded some property and ended up with a couple of acres there and they allocated that or given that to the Tec Garage group to help build an innovation center.
Joe: Interesting. So, the partnership doesn’t have specific agendas. It’s just a general sort of goal of what’s best for St. Pete and it allows you to shine some light in places where there’s not naturally self-interest in looking.
Jeff: We take more of a rifle shot than a shotgun. Everything that everybody will be working on – two or three projects at a time. Another one that we’re working on right now is the Cuban Initiative. We’d like to see a Cuban Consulate for the southeast land in St. Petersburg. To do that, you’ve got to have relationships with people in Cuba. So, there’s been multiple trips to Cuba and multiple trips of bringing people from Cuba to St. Petersburg to see ball games or, most recently the Cuban ambassador was here just a few weeks ago. He got to see a lot of our arts organizations, our sports, our education, our marine science, and understand really that we have a lot of things in common and that, you know, it’s not a political issue here. It’s about building relationships for sports education, marine science, the arts. If we can do that, then when the time comes, we’ll be friends, and hopefully we get the nod for the consulate. Some of the other major cities in Florida have said they don’t want it.
Jeff: It’s too political for them.
Joe: Well, I like that St. Pete is willing to step and embrace that opportunity because I don’t see it as political either. I see it as connecting to the rest of the world and exchanging information. You mentioned a couple of startups. I guess there’s a few worth discussing there. Of course, Priatek got the deal with the building downtown to get the naming rights so that’s, at the very least, a kind of sexy opportunity to shine above the city.
Jeff: And then they partner with people like Sony and get Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and things like that to be a part of their advertising gaming program. Those are pretty big wins for a little company in St. Pete. They’re coming along nicely.
Joe: And, of course, Lumastream, I think they’re in this contract with Tesla to do their dealerships in the US and that certainly has some nice brand power behind them.
Jeff: Yeah, Eric has got a great story about one of the showrooms, I think it was on the west coast, and they were having a cocktail party or something on a Saturday and they basically called him Friday and said, ‘Can you put new lights in?’ And so, he’d bring all your stuff and you get out and you put it in and it looks like a whole different place because the LED lighting they’ve invented is just so different and the colors, you know, there’s a red car, and a blue car, and a white car, and the red car and the blue car didn’t look that much different until you put the new lights in and then it was like a flag, you know, red, white, and blue. Bright. That was a fun success story.
Joe: And did you guys have anything to do with the relationship between Lumastream and the university as far as – didn’t they put a classroom in Lumastream?
Jeff: Yeah, St. Pete college put a training center in the Lumastream manufacturing facility. So, there are several training machines. I forget what kind of machines they’re called, but they do train people at their headquarters to work in their company and the skillsets they could use all over the Tampa Bay area, if not the country.
Joe: And they’ve hired a few people out of that class.
Jeff: They have.
Joe: And Eric is a great artist. He is a renaissance man.
Jeff: Google Eric. He’s got big rock sculptures and things all over the country.
Joe: And that’s Eric Higgs from Lumastream, for those of you listening. If you want to check out some of his work, it’s pretty cool. I’d love to hear the history of what is now Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete that was The Hero Foundation and sort of the origins of that money and your observations of you time working on that initiative.
Jeff: So, I got involved with Bayfront Medical Center as a part of the foundation. That was my first introduction. I’ll go back a little bit further. In the 80’s, my father worked briefly at Bayfront. He’d been in city management and banking and he was the first director of development for Bayfront Medical Center. I didn’t really put the two together until, you know, way, way long after this. But I found one of his old business cards after he passed away and I was cleaning things out. I don’t think he held the job for very long. It was kind of an interim thing or to get it set up for the hospital and so directors of development are generally fundraisers. They were typically raising outside money for organizations. At the time, it was still a pretty heyday for the hospitals. Business was good and reimbursements were good from the government. But long story short, Donna and I had all three of our children at Bayfront, so we had a little special place in our heart for the hospital and it was a public hospital owned by the city of St. Pete but not the government. It’s owned by the people of St. Petersburg. So, it’s a private not-for-profit hospital.
Over the years as healthcare got tighter and tighter and more expensive and more expensive it became obvious that a standalone not-for-profit hospital was not going to be able to make it. I ended up doing some fundraising for the hospital’s foundation and was later on the board for the hospital and as we went along we could see the handwriting on the wall maybe five or ten years out, we’d have to do something, so why don’t we make a change before we have to? So, we solicited, I guess, indications of interest from about sixteen different hospital organizations and narrowed that down to three and then two were really legitimate contenders. We ended up selling the hospital to HCA out of Naples which had about seventy or so hospitals as I recall. So, it was local. It was not too big. It wasn’t one of these multi-thousand type hospital organizations and the people seemed to be of good character and fit the right profile of what we wanted to do here and didn’t have a presence here, so everybody would keep their job. Six months later they sold out. They sold to Community Health System out of Tennessee. So that was a much bigger organization and so the poor employees had gone from Bayfront to HMA to CHS, so they had three employers in a year. That was a lot different than how we intended that to turn out.
Joe: The deal actually closed then with HCA and then they sold.
Jeff: Yeah it was HMA. H….HSA. It wasn’t HCA. HCA is a really big hospital chain. What we sold to was a much smaller one and that was the initial sale. That was what generated the funds for what they call a ‘conversion foundation’. So, a conversion foundation is when you’ve convert a not-for-profit hospital to a for-profit hospital and so you sell it to a for-profit organization and that generates the sale proceeds, as if you sold a house you got all the money, so we sold the hospital, we got all the money. What we did was design a board that would oversee that money and then ultimately give away whatever that money made or earned for the benefit of St. Petersburg. It was, you know, a long planning process. We kept all the board intact for six months and told them they’d be fired in six months as board members because they were hospital people, not foundation board members. There were about four of us that were elected to stay on either because of our skillsets or our contributions, or our institutional knowledge to maintain the history and legacy of the hospital and then brought in a lot of new board members that were less medical related, more civic and charitable and education and healthcare and things like that.
Joe: About how big was that next board?
Jeff: We were about a dozen.
Joe: Was there any kind of a sustainability mindset from a financial standpoint where you wanted to obviously put some money into some initiatives? Were you aiming to get a return on some of those initiatives to keep the foundation going or….?
Jeff: Yeah, the idea was we had about two hundred million dollars. We had to pay off some debt, we collected some of our outstanding receivables and so forth and ended up with about a hundred ninety million dollars. But part of the deal was we bought into the new hospital. So, we put forty million dollars into the hospital to be a shareholder of that organization to make sure we could keep a tab on their charity care, the quality of care and they’d committed as part of our transaction to invest a hundred million in new equipment in the hospital, which was needed. We were investing in technology but not as fast as it was being invented. We wanted to make sure all that happened. Ultimately it has. I think they’ve invested over eighty million in the hospital so far.
Jeff: So, we were a shareholder of the hospital but the other hundred and fifty million or so was to be invested and then the earnings from that would be put back in the city of St. Petersburg for education initiatives, healthcare initiatives, civics, or arts. All different kinds of things to make St. Pete a better place.
Joe: And then with the sale to the big organization, I would assume that helped the share value as much as it was disappointing from a this is not who we chose to sell to standpoint. Was it financially beneficial because the share price rose with the apposition?
Jeff: But we got cash. The hospital sold for cash and that cash was invested in a variety of stock and bond investments, you know, as any big foundation would do or an endowment would do.
Joe: But the shares that you had left behind….
Jeff: Oh yes, yeah, yeah, yeah. So, the ones we still had, I suppose they were worth maybe a little bit more but not a big difference.
Joe: Ok so then you’re moving forward. You have what’s called The Hero Fund.
Jeff: Yeah so it was Bayfront Hero when we left. We used that name because we called our employees at Bayfront heroes and so it was an easy name to latch right onto Bayfront and it was sometime after the fact someone did a search and found out there’s twenty-seven ‘Hero’ not-for-profits in Florida and most of them are veteran related. So, we realized that really wasn’t going to be the right fit for the long term. And then we did a search and had a firm help us look at all different things and what was being used, what wasn’t being used and The Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete is what we arrived at. The most interesting I think was the logo. It’s a hexagon and that’s just a reflection of a lot of the streets and the sidewalks in St. Petersburg are paved with hexagons. So, it’s a real St. Pete symbol and I kind of like that it kept it local. So that was the evolution of the name and then we needed an executive director so we hired Randy Russell. I feel very privileged to have chaired that committee and I tell him every time I see him that he’s my legacy for that organization.
Joe: Don’t screw it up.
Jeff: Yeah, don’t mess it up buddy. Shout out to him. He’s doing a great job and really looking out for St. Pete and has bought a house and he’s in deep. He’s here and he loves it and he’s very good at what does. So, from there we’ve made our investments and the outgrowth of that was trying to help pioneer a little bit of that portfolio into some of these young companies and to help build some jobs. And my thinking with that is we’ve got a great core of major companies here. Home Shopping Network, you know, Outback is not far away, Jabil, Raymond James is a big one, Tech Data is a Fortune 100 company. But where’s the next one going to come from? So, we need to groom our own young companies and invest in them and support them and encourage them where we can to build the next Tom James, the next Bill Huff. When you look around town, their names are all over. Bill Morean from Jabil. So, there’s some great contributions to our community from these company leaders. Twenty or thirty years from now, who’s that going to be? So, if we can build other young companies into great powerhouses in St. Pete, not only does it provide jobs but it will help support the arts and the things that we are very proud of in St. Pete.
Joe: What can we do to be better at that? You know, obviously we’ve talked about a few of the local companies. As much as I love them, I don’t feel like that number is big enough. I feel like compared to other cities that we’re not seeing the businesses starting here all the time. But those specific ones that, you know, have the real potential to grow into hallmark businesses, or bedrock businesses I guess is a better word.
Jeff: I’d like to see us create a culture of that’s just part of how we invest is that we include those in our investment portfolios and from time to time it’s a civic investment and other times it’s a for-profit investment. Sometimes you just want to help out and do a little something. Other times, you’re going to want to make money on this and their responsibility is to grow and to build and to make us money on our return on our investment. You know, everybody’s situation is a little bit different but in our community for several generations had been a retirement community. We’re taking risk in small companies which is never heard of. It was a CD, a tax rate bond, a government bond type investment community. But as the age is coming down and the availability to take a little more risk is for younger people in particular. It seems like that’ll be a good fit if we can just tell the story and help people understand how that fits in a portfolio. It’s certainly not something you put all your money and then my encouragement is to spread it over eight or ten different little companies and probably six or eight of them are going to go out of business. One you might get your money back and the other one, the plan is that you make all your money on whichever one it is but you don’t know necessarily going in.
Joe: Do you feel like enough people who are giving financial advice are taking that point of view where they’re advising people to put their money into, you know, obviously a reasonable piece of it……
Jeff: Not at all and the biggest reason is because the risk involved. Somebody is going to lose some money along the way and guess who the deep pocket is. So, they want their money back and so we as advisors and my role as a financial advisor in St. Petersburg. If I put that hat on, I can’t advise my clients to do that. They can find out, they can ask me about companies, they can investigate them. But I can’t tell them ‘go invest here or go invest there’ because that’s just not going to fit in our corporate world of how things happen and some are going to go to zero and you got to make sure you spread your money to a lot of different ones and take that risk yourself and know what you’re getting into. But again, as an advisor I think it’s appropriate for certain to be able to have the wherewithal to do that. But it’s probably not going to come from the big institutional investment people.
Joe: Yeah that’s fair enough. But it sounds like you found some neat ways to take what would be investment funds sort of the same level as an institutional investor, but found appropriate methods to get that money into smaller passages.
Jeff: Right. If we could find some of the local endowments and foundations and things and you know if they’d allocate just a small piece to the younger startup companies. That’d be a great gesture and then ultimately, I think some of them are going to work out great and we’ll make some money on it. That’d be nice if we could just create that as part of our culture. We take care of these small companies we invest in and it’s important.
Joe: Thanks for saying that, I agree. Let’s talk a little bit more about the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete. I notice there seems to be in the things that they invest in that they like to build a pretty much procedural or frameworks for success versus individual projects. Have you ever had conversations about the nature of how you want to use the money in that regard as far as, obviously there’s a lot of worthy non-profits, are there a specific type of initiative you’re looking for?
Jeff: One of the things we when we first got started was to find out who was doing what. So, we put out a very broad request proposal. Giving very small grants to a lot of different people with a complete understanding this is a onetime deal. We wanted to gather information from a lot of different organizations and find out what everybody is doing. When you do that you start finding several organizations perhaps doing the same thing and so the opportunity there is then to be a convener as to get those groups together and have them talk about what they’re doing. Is there a need for three different organizations? Sometimes there is, you know, it’s cultural, its race related, its neighborhood related. Things like that. But other times, you may be able to get more done with less if you can combine those groups. Now we wouldn’t have been the ones to combine them. That would be their idea. But if we could at least get them in the same room to talk, that would be a great place to start those conversations where it’s not threatening, nobody’s job is at risk. It’s just find out what everybody is doing and seeing if there’s an opportunity to make it better for the community.
Joe: And did that go in general? You know, obviously there’s just, like you said, people have their thing they’ve been working on and the idea of melding those even if it makes sense can be a hurdle.
Jeff: Yeah, that’s about the time I exited the board. So, I know the objective and I know some of the meetings happen and I still refer people to the foundation and then talked to Curtis and to the group there. But I’m not in all the meetings anymore.
Joe: How long ago did that happen?
Jeff: About a year and a half ago.
Joe: And so, have you found anything, I know obviously you’re very busy with the partnership, any other newer initiatives you’ve taken on a liking to?
Jeff: Well to just, kind of continue on that thought, one of the things that I’ve tried to do is help bring a new awareness to some of the companies that do operate in St. Petersburg. Marks and Labs is one and so we had invited them to come speak at the rotary clubs and try to help introduce them around and they do virtual reality type business and they’ve signed some great big companies and they got an office right here in downtown St. Pete. It’s not a name anybody has ever heard but it’s the technology of the future. Recently at our Downtown Partnership luncheon we had hosted iQor, and iQor, no one has ever heard of, but iQor has got forty thousand employees all over the world and work in sixty countries and their office is in downtown St. Pete. Hartmut. (Hartmut Liebel)
Joe: Impressive individual, He, obviously being the CEO of a large company but almost a professional tennis player and gets dropped on mountains to ski down it.
Jeff: That’s right, he heli-skis and he’s taken all his kids heli-skiing and he’s got children on scholarships for sports and a great family. Turns out he’s a neighbor of mine too. It’s very fun.
Joe: And of course, there’s the infamous or famous slide that goes in between the different floors in the building.
Jeff: That’s right!
Joe: I love that building. We had our office there next to yours for five years or so and before that it was with Revolution Money upstairs in the tenth or eleventh floor. I just think it’s a really nice spot in St. Pete. It’s a very comfortable building.
Jeff: And it’s just changed hands. So, we have new owners. They’re friends from Ashley Furniture. The Waneks have bought it. Someone was telling me today that they’re getting ready to spend several million dollars gussying it up and fixing it and maintaining some things that need to be done.
Joe: Because where your office was and my relationship with the chairs, I ended up being sort of the de-facto tour guide for the building. I remember Darren called me one time and Ron….
Joe: Wanek yes, wanted to see some space. So, he came in and I took them upstairs and showed him around the building. So, Darren if you’re listening I’m ready for my commission anytime.
Jeff: Good for you. You’re a good salesman.
Joe: He was looking at a little space for his accounting team I think and they ended up deciding more of them were in Tampa than here and they took some space in Tampa.
Jeff: I wonder if it makes a difference that their building a house on waterfront or remodeling a house on the waterfront here. I think he’s got a couple of properties in Snell. I don’t know but I know they have plenty of furniture in them.
Jeff: That’s right. No shortage.
Joe: Let’s talk a bit about the pier. We’ve started to make some headway on the pier. I’d love to hear anything you have to say about the actual pier as it sits but more interested in what role do you think an iconic entity like pier has been and theoretically will be? What importance does it have for St. Pete and why?
Jeff: I’ll share just a little bit of history. A big reason I live in St. Petersburg is because of the pier. My dad was hired by the city in 1970 as the assistant city manager and one of his responsibilities was getting the old pier built and lease it to restaurants and coffee shops or whatever. When he first joined he was also in charge of the parks department and Al Lang field and Bayfront Center, which is now Mahaffey. So, we’ve had some family ties to that. Before he passed away I said ‘Dad, you know they’re starting to talk about tearing down the pier now. What do you think about that?’ And he had a long pause and I’m expecting a tear or something and probably about time is what he said.
Joe: Very pragmatic.
Jeff: There were pictures of it and there were postcards of it. But the real relationship to the pier there was the events that were held in the pier. The upside-down pyramid pier, that was iconic as a building and there were a lot of pictures and post cards of that. But what you remembered was the building. The pier we have planned now is probably not going to be that same kind of iconic, picturesque building. But it’s going to be a place for events. It’s going to be a place you’ll remember for what you did there. So that’s what it’s being built for. Now really when I heard that and really grasped it because I wasn’t a big fan of all the designs. It just didn’t seem like anything was working. But the concept of when you leave St. Pete, you remember what you did at the pier. You remember the event, you remember the activity. It’s not so much the building. That really made a believer out of me.
Joe: Look at things that we might want to throw into the same sort bucket as maybe The Arch, right? Things happen under The Arch, Archway in St. Louis, and you can go up the Archway and look out the window and look back at the city and so there’s some experience. But you know The Arch is The Arch. It’s picture values, not to be understated I don’t think. Same thing kind of with the Space Needle. You can go up it and look around. I think they have a restaurant there, right?
Jeff: I think so, yeah. I didn’t get as hung up on the design as I did the opportunity to do things. I guess that’s a way to say it.
Joe: Yeah, certainly think usability. It needs to be something for the citizens. It needs to be something for tourists and everything but, eh, you know we’ll see. You might even think of it as that whole pier district and beach drive being sort of the iconic, kind of like South Beach is to Miami, you can’t point to anything specific other than the beach obviously for South Beach but no specific structure really. But the overall totality of the area becomes the icon in of itself.
Jeff: I think it’s going to be spectacular when we’re done. It’ll be a great place to gather folks from out of town and locals alike. You know, it got to be a point where the old pier, the locals weren’t really using it much and I think this will go, with what we got set up now with all the playgrounds and water parks and beaches and kayak rentals and all the things that can happen and food to be had there. I think that’ll be a local draw as well.
Joe: So how long was your dad in that position?
Jeff: He was there three years and then went into banking after that.
Joe: So, he was kind of in there on the ground floor with a lot of the neat stuff that was happening in that waterfront area.
Jeff: Yep. It was very fun to see all that happening.
Joe: You think you would’ve gone and been city maybe mayor by now, I don’t know.
Jeff: Ah, I don’t know. Maybe that would’ve been my path. He was a great leader for us and active in St. Pete and certainly taught us as children to give back that we were very blessed and we owe something back to the community. So, I don’t do it as a burden, I do it as a joy you know in my activities.
Joe: Speaking of giving back, one thing I like to do is give you a chance to put the spotlight on an entity or a person or just something that you feel is doing good work for St. Pete. Elevating St. Pete, lifting St. Pete up, and that could be benefit from a little more attention, some eyeballs on it. Anything come to mind?
Jeff: I am a huge fan of Joni James our CEO and she left the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board to come work for us and she is doing a great job. She’s very bright. She’s got advanced degrees and writes beautifully as you might imagine. But she’s also a great thinker and we just got a letter from the PSTA, the transportation organization in the last couple of days recognizing her as such a great team player as an outside public private partnership. I think the words they used was one of the most thoughtful, collegial people they’ve ever worked with. And so, I’d like to give a shout out to Joni for her hard work and what she’s doing for the city. She loves St. Petersburg, she could work anywhere in the world. She’s a very talented person and she wants to be here.
Joe: Right and I would like to add that we’ve worked with her now on two projects The Innovation District and the partnership and both have been extremely fun and professional and efficient and great. So yeah, she’s a superstar.
Jeff: I grew up here since elementary school, went to school over in Lakeland at Florida Southern College which was the largest single site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world. So that was a really interesting place. But I wanted to go away to school but not too far away and I really love St. Petersburg. We’ve had children, raised them here, and they’ve grown up. Somebody asked me, ‘Why are you doing all you’re doing?’ I said, ‘Well I really want to make this a place our kids want to come back to. So, I’ve got one who’s moved back to town and he said ‘Dad, you did a pretty good job.’ So, it’s fun to have the young people come back. When I was growing up, it was all you could do to get out of town and now it’s a destination for them to come back to which I think is a great tribute to our city and our city leaders and how they’ve helped form St. Pete.
Joe: In my twenties, I was a bit of a vagabond and I backpacked for about five years around the world, I don’t know if we ever talked about that or not, but, I assumed that I would bounce around for my entire life and live in different countries and I moved here about thirteen years ago and here I am. Never been happier, and fully rooted in this place and I can’t imagine going anywhere else despite the vacation would be enough for right now.
Jeff: That’s exactly right. It’s fun to go visit other places but by doing that you realize how great it is here.
Joe: Cool. I appreciate you stopping by and spending some time with us. Your work that you’re doing is greatly appreciated and I appreciate you sharing the knowledge and some of the history of your organizations you’re involved with.
Jeff: Always fun to be with you, Joe.
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About the host
Joe Hamilton is the CEO of Big Sea and a founding Insight Board member at the St. Petersburg Group. Joe brings a strong acumen for strategy and positioning businesses. He serves on several local boards, including TEDx Tampa Bay, which grew his desire to build a platform where the area’s thought leaders could share their valuable insight with the community at large.