Peter Betzer, St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership
Peter Betzer talks the evolution of the College of Marine Science, St. Pete Progress and its role in St. Pete's development
On this episode of SPx, Joe flies solo with St. Pete's very own Peter Betzer, President of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, and Dean Emeritus of the University of South Florida College of Marine Science. When Betzer arrived in St. Petersburg in 1971, the College of Marine Science had five faculty members and a dozen graduate students, and the city was known as a haven for the elderly and retired - where the downtown streets rolled up after 5 p.m. Thanks to Betzer and the business leaders of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership (formerly St. Pete Progress), the College of Marine Science now ranks as one of the top 10 institutions in the country, and St. Pete's downtown is a bustling center for tech and innovation.
- Peter Betzer was foundational to the formation of the lauded University of South Florida Marine Sciences program. He came to St. Pete as scientist: "I came here in 1971 right after I’d finished a PhD in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and I came as a research scientist."
- Betzer's initial focus in the city was science itself. He and his colleagues secured one of the first major grants in the USF system, spent a few years researching out at sea with USF graduate students. His work developing the program, along with that of the major business people of the time, secured USF St. Petersburg's College of Marine Sciences as one of the foremost programs in the country.
- "So the second part of my career was a little bit less about science and somewhat more about trying to basically propel St. Petersburg’s community forward with a huge amount of help from the business community that really did an immense amount of heavy lifting."
- Jack Lake, publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, was also instrumental in the College of Marine Sciences' development. His political clout brought major players - like the lieutenant governor at the time - down to invest in the program. "That was, I think, their idea, that if we build a really strong scientific group we’ll start bringing in people, really top-notch people, not just from the United States but from all over the world. And you know what? That’s what’s happened."
- "Nelson Poynter was a person who was very interested not just in a newspaper, but in basically enriching the community. So Lake as a publisher was a person who I think Nelson said, “Okay, look, you’re a shrewd business guy. I want you to go and help me and to help develop this community."
- Jack Lake is credited with a number of crucial developmental successes in St. Petersburg, including the Dali. "Without Lake there is no Dali, without Lake and the business community there is no marine science basically, we would’ve withered away."
- "[St. Pete] Downtown Partnership went in under the radar and they quietly bought up all of the parcels of land around the North part of the Bayboro Harbor where the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg is right now."
- "[The Downtown Partnership] got ten acres and they turned around and they gave it to the state and they said, “Look, we’ll give you this land to the Internal Improvement Trust Fund as long as you guarantee us that this becomes a University.”
- In 1981 the Downtown Partnership endowed a faculty position for marine science, they presented a $600,000 cheque, which in 1981 was a lot of money.
- "[The endowment] allowed us to attract a member of the National Academy of Science as Robert M. Garrels, who arguably was one of the two or three greatest geochemists the world had ever had."
- "If you fast forward to the oil spill in 2011 and ’12, allowed South Florida to hire Steve Murawski, who has become basically the coordinator for a very large international effort to understand what the gulf oil spill did to the Gulf of Mexico."
- The clout of the marine sciences grew as the faculty became more dedicated to building it. "The department of interior put out an ad saying the they were looking for a new home for a big coastal laboratory that they had that was in Massachusetts. And they basically said, “If you’re interested you have until December 21st or something like that.” Yeah, basically you had a month and a half to answer what amounted to about 600 pages worth of questions. So I dropped everything I had, I got our associate department together and we spent a month and a half putting together what was in excess a 600-pages proposal."
- The ability St. Petersburg "It’s interesting because if you go other places and people always say, 'Wow, how could that have possibly happened?' And you realize that it is really distinctive and it’s not like other places don’t have money, but they don’t have an active, long-term involvement.'
- I’m hopeful that we actually can do something with this embryonic effort that allows us to expand our society’s appreciation of the importance of the oceans, so that we have more enlightened voters, maybe we take better care of our huge fish stocks that are out there, maybe we think about what’s a rational way to have some rain protected area so we’re not just out fishing everything at a time when, say, the fish need a little bit of break so that they can reproduce.
- "When I first started oceanography was basically old, white men like I’ve become and now thankfully the diversity at the College has increased greatly and so we have more women scientists there than we have men scientists."
- "For 12 years the Sloan Foundation has been supporting the minority program that the College of Marine Science has."
"The second part of my career was a little bit less about science and more about trying to basically propel the St. Petersburg community forward with a huge amount of help from the business community that really did an immense amount of heavy lifting."
"So the partnership controlled a very large pool of money that they used to buy, first they bought the land and created the way to build a University in, and they basically endowed the chair in marine science for the University of South Florida."
New St. Pete Downtown Partnership CEO brings fresh perspective
“How do you preserve the best of St. Pete, while recognizing that St. Pete is going to change?” That’s a central question for Jason Mathis, the new Chief Executive Officer of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.
Mathis was hired in July to lead the Downtown Partnership – a private organization that invests in project-based initiatives in the city core to benefit St. Petersburg businesses and citizens. After an extensive, months-long search process, he will fill the role left vacant by former CEO Joni James, who stepped down in late 2017. Mathis brings 20+ years of experience in nonprofit work – most recently with the Downtown Alliance of Salt Lake City.
St. Petersburg has long felt like home to Mathis. In fact, he can chronicle his son’s growing years through photos taken on St. Pete Beach. Despite spending his entire adult life in Salt Lake City, Mathis and his family often vacationed in or around Orlando, they’d always be sure to make their way to St. Pete Beach. Now, they’re excited to call St. Pete home full-time.
As Mathis and his family adjust to their new hometown, Mathis has hit the ground running. Just two weeks into his position, Mathis is taking his first few weeks to act as a sponge, absorbing information and meeting with as many business and community leaders as possible.
“One of my goals is to meet with 100 business leaders in 100 days,” Mathis explained. “I asked our board members for 15 names of people they think I should get to know. There are some duplicates, but it’s a long list.” A long list for a city comprised of complex public figures, thought leaders and an involved business community that operates from multiple corridors, not just downtown.
Meeting the city with fresh eyes has its benefits, Mathis said. “There is this unique window when I am still an outsider and I don’t have any baggage or relationships so I can see things with fresh eyes,” he explained. “But that should be moderated a little bit with some base knowledge of what has happened before and what people care about.”
He’s learning more about the city every day, and developing priorities for his tenure at the Partnership. That includes a tight relationship with the City of St. Petersburg. “Most downtown organizations have a big public financing component,” said Mathis. “They’re financed from tax increments from the property owners, but the city is the conduit to collect those taxes and have a contract with the downtown organization.”
That’s how the Downtown Alliance of Salt Lake City functioned, but not how St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership works. “Here, it is nearly 100 percent private money,” says Mathis.
That private money comes from the founders of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. During its formation 50 years ago, the founders accumulated 10 acres of the private land that surrounded Bayboro Harbor. That land made the Partnership’s first project, the location of a University of South Florida campus within St. Petersburg, possible. It is on that land where the USFSP campus now sits. The Partnership is supported by private shareholders, but it also garners much of its income from the management of USFSP buildings, among other sources.
“In some ways it’s great because you can move quickly,” said Mathis. “But in some ways I don’t know if we have had as close a relationship with the city as we might have if we were dependent on the city for funding.” One of Mathis’ priorities will be to work closely with the City of St. Petersburg to push Partnership initiatives forward. In fact, one of his first meetings in St. Petersburg was with City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle.
Development is essential, according to Mathis, for a successful city core. “No matter where you are, what city you live in, it’s going to change,” he said. “Really the goal is to acknowledge that change is going to happen but to manage that change to try to preserve the elements that make the community unique, and then bring in new amenities, new buildings, new developments that build on the character that already exists.”
Mathis also sees incredible potential for building up St. Pete’s brand with the Innovation District – another project pushed forward by the Partnership. It houses USFSP, USF College of Marine Sciences, NOAA, and other leading marine research and educational facilities, as well as Johns Hopkins All Children’s, the Poynter Institute, and Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.
“There is this secret about St. Pete in terms of this concentration – this cluster – of marine research,” said Mathis. “With climate change and the impact of oceans on coastal communities and because we have a real incentive to understand this better, St. Petersburg is uniquely positioned to be a global leader in understanding these issues and what it’s going to take to prepare cities.”
“I’d be interested in thinking about how we get that story told to a wider audience,” Mathis said. “In the marine research world people know about St. Pete. But what if we were to do some sort of national marketing campaign? ‘The leading minds from around the world are being attracted to St. Petersburg, Florida to find answers.’”
“There’s something really magical that’s already happened and my goal would just be to accentuate that and build on it. And to tell the story in a way that really resonates with people.”
Mathis’ other priorities will include a focus on arts as economic drivers, the Tropicana Field redevelopment project, the consolidation of USFSP into the full USF system, and encouraging the development of Class A office space in downtown St. Petersburg.
Table of Contents
(0:00 – 0:39) Introduction
(0:39 – 8:01) Peter’s Professional History and Marine Science
(8:01 – 28:31) The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership
(28:31 – 29:54) Wastewater Treatment Plant
(29:54 – 30:30) St. Pete Progress
(30:30 – 33:10) Next Challenges
(33:10 – 35:09) Daily Life Meaning
(35:09 – 38:28) Collaboration with the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete
(38:28 – 40:03) Kudos to Suzie Betzer and the Florida Orchestra
(40:03 – 41:31) Shout-outs
Full Transcript: Joe: Join me on St. Pete X, today is Peter Betzer. Welcome, sir.
Peter: Thank you.
Joe: We don’t normally do bios to start our podcast, but you have a very cool one and an interesting one, and so let’s just take a minute to talk about your professional history just so we can get everybody caught up.
Peter: Sure. I came here in 1971 right after I’d finished a PhD in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and I came as a research scientist, and so – in fact a colleague and I were the ones who got the very first grant from the Office of Naval Research, which was a big deal at USF because at that time they didn’t have much in the way of federal grants. And the first probably decade I was here, I spent a couple of years at sea, which might be a testimony to low IQ, but nonetheless I had big research programs and I really enjoyed doing and working with graduate students. In the midst of the 1970s when I was here we got involved with St. Pete Progress and they have of course, as we’ve already discussed, been critical to the emergence of basically a major research center in the Southeastern, United States. So the second part of my career was a little bit less about science and somewhat more about trying to basically propel St. Petersburg’s community forward with a huge amount of help from the business community that really did an immense amount of heavy lifting. And when I look back at it it’s over 40 years that it has taken for this thing to basically evolve and develop into something that almost anybody in the world that knows anything about the ocean says, “Oh yeah, that place,” because it’s clearly in the top ten in the United States. Well, and they’ve done a lot of very positive things and I’m not an objective observer, so I’d better stay away from that.
Joe: Well, I am, and I think it’s… and objective I’ll say, and I think it’s very positive as well.
Peter: Great [laughing].
Joe: It shouldn’t also be overlooked that having that presence helped in building that area and that district and certainly some of the medical facilities that have come in all feel better about coming there because of that brain power that’s emanating from there and the respect for the work that’s coming out of there, that makes that district attractive for people like Johns Hopkins. And it’s certainly some of the crossover benefit for the University.
Peter: Oh, yeah, there’s been a very significant interaction between the researchers at Johns Hopkins and some of the molecular scientists in marine science, and there is no question that there is some important ways in which they can and have collaborated. The dream that I think the Downtown Partnership had with our St. Pete Progress, they’re interesting because they had lost the battle for the University of South Florida. It went to Tampa, it didn’t come to St. Petersburg, but they decided, “Okay, well we didn’t get the University, but by gummy, we think marine science is really gonna be a star and so we will build this program,” and we thought, “Hey, this is wonderful.” There was one – we had our first couple of meetings, or only five faculty and twelve graduate students, so it’s pretty embryonic. And so early on this guy, Lake, got the governor’s office to come down and talk to them about hey, this is an important part of our community and we really want us to evolve and develop. And we were in the midst of this whole World War II merchant marine training facility and it had passed it’s a good time, and there were rusty windows in our conference room and everything else. And so this guy from Reubin Askew’s office this thing here with Jack Lake, who is the publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, and the guy looked at Lake and he said, “Jack, I really can’t understand what am I doing here?” And Lake looked at him and he said, “Okay, take a look across the table. You see those two guys?” And so I’m sitting there with a colleague, Ken Fanning, who was a chemical oceanographer. So Lake points at us and he said, “You see those two guys? They’re a lot brighter than we are and we want a lot more of those people in our community, that’s what we’re going for.” And the guy said, “I get it.” And so that was, I think, their idea, that if we build a really strong scientific group we’ll start bringing in people, really top-notch people, not just from the United States but from all over the world. And you know what? That’s what’s happened.
Joe: So what was the overlap with the publisher of the newspaper playing into the arena of building a marine biology center?
Peter: He was part of basically Nelson Poynter’s group, so the Poynter Institute. The Poynter Institute of course had basically owned the St. Petersburg Times. Nelson Poynter was a person who was very interested not just in a newspaper, but in basically enriching the community. So Lake as a publisher was a person who I think Nelson said, “Okay, look, you’re a shrewd business guy. I want you to go and help me and to help develop this community,” which at the time, the early ‘70s and late ‘60s, was the place where they rolled up the streets at eight o’clock at night and there were no good restaurants and Bayboro Harbor was polluted and on and on. So Lake who was the publisher was a key part of the St. Petersburg Progress, he was one of the reasons that it got started, and Raleigh Greene, Howard Nix, Gene… I forget all of the names, but in any case, in addition to the marine sciences, which they focused on, Lake was absolutely pivotal in terms of bringing this Dali here. So Jim Martin showed an add from the Wall Street Journal to Jack Lake, Lake called up Reynolds Morse and Morse said, “Look, I don’t want to have anything to do with St. Petersburg, that’s just a dump.” And Jack said, “Look, Reynolds, we’ll pay for you to come down here and we’ll pay for your lunch and we just want you to look, no pressure. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. It won’t cost you a dime, just a little bit of your time.” Well, Morse came down and he liked it. And as a result the Morse family moved all of their Dali collection down here, and that collection as you know is extensive as the one in Spain which is held up as the collection in the world, and in fact the Dali has become one of only two five-star attractions in the whole state of Florida. So without Lake there is no Dali, without Lake and the business community there is no marine science basically, we would’ve withered away, and I’m trying to think… there’s several other things that they did but those are two giant things in the terms of the evolution of our city, where the business community had the foresight and really the vision and an idea, but they didn’t just have an idea, they actually translated a dream into action and that’s incredible.
Joe: And I guess you would say with Lake, that’s a mandate from Nelson Poynter too, so he stood behind that push as well.
Peter: Right. And in fact I’m going to what I didn’t mention, is that Downtown Partnership went in under the radar and they quietly bought up all of the parcels of land around the North part of the Bayboro Harbor where the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg is right now. There were welding shops, yacht repair basins, a polluted harbor and a down and out bar called The Stick and Rudder that were down there, which wasn’t exactly what you’d call a highlight in St. Petersburg, okay?
Peter: Well, anyway, they got all that, they got ten acres and they turned around and they gave it to the State and they said, “Look, we’ll give you this land to the Internal Improvement Trust Fund as long as you guarantee us that this becomes a University.” And they did.
Joe: They did.
Peter: And so now look at all the students that are there, all the people that are getting education and well, again, without the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership that would have never happened. The city came in later and bought outboard adjoining parcels, but it was really the business community that had the vision and then went in and did it and did it really shrewdly.
Joe: Well, and speaking of the Downtown Partnership, I’m a big fan on a number of both of my communities or members and I look forward to the meetings every month. What I love to do is just get an oral history of the Downtown Partnership. I don’t know if that story… I think you’d be a great person to tell that. So can we go back to the beginning as to how it was formed and who the players were, why it was formed and its evolution it’s going through as best you can remember?
Peter: Well, okay, I can’t take you back to the beginning because I wasn’t here until 1971. My impression is that this group started in the late ‘60s, so somewhere in the late ‘60s they started. I’m not really aware of anything and from listening to Raleigh Greene or Howard Nix or Jack Lake talk, and I spent years interacting with them, that there was prior to say, for instance, the focus that they got about marine science and acquiring the land for USF. And so that was about 1973 that they decided about marine science and it was shortly thereafter that, and it might have been going on because nobody was talking, they were going in under the table basically and behind the scenes and taking parcel by parcel by parcel till they had it all together. So about 1974 the community realized the enormity of what had happened, that they had tipped over everything, and so the State then funded basically the construction of a first building on that parcel. And Bob Graham, who was governor, showed up and Nelson Poynter was there, and in fact after the ceremony, after the building was built they had a ceremony and he went back to his office and passed away. It was an incredible thing, I think that was 1979. In 1981 the Downtown Partnership endowed a faculty position for marine science, they presented a $600,000 cheque, which in 1981 was a lot of money.
Joe: Not a bad chunk, yeah.
Peter: So USF at that point had one endowed chair in engineering and this became the second endowed chair and it was in marine science. And in addition to the 600,000 it attracted 400,000 of a state match.
Joe: Oh, wow.
Peter: So at that time the State matched shares for faculty as well as fellowships for student. And in fact that allowed us to attract a member of the National Academy of Science as Robert M. Garrels, who arguably was one of the two or three greatest geochemists the world had ever had. Okay, and his colleagues were stunned that he would come to the marine science department in St. Petersburg, they were blown away. Because he was at Harvard and then at Northwestern he’d been in all the big places and he was revered in the scientific world. But he came and in fact stayed here the rest of his career and it’s that chair that allowed University of South Florida, if you fast forward to the oil spill in 2011 and ’12, allowed South Florida to hire Steve Murawski, who has become basically the coordinator for a very large international effort to understand what the gulf oil spill did to the Gulf of Mexico. Without the assets of that chair, which now are in excess of five and a half million, we would not have Murawski and the millions and millions of dollars that have come in from both the oil companies and grants from other agencies, and he still has active research programs and international ties with both Mexico and Cuba. So anyway, that single thing that they did was – and who could’ve predicted, who would’ve known?
Peter: But that didn’t stop there. They… Florida has always been strange politically and some of the stuff that happens here, you don’t have to make it up because you can actually see that, and I saw it. In 1981 the department of marine science applied to the board of regions to get a PhD program because we can only give Master’s degrees. But we knew we were good enough to be giving PhDs, which is the highest thing you can do. So FSU said, “Oh, no, we’re the only place in the whole state of Florida that gives a PhD and we don’t want those turkeys down there giving any PhDs.” Board of Regents also said, “No, we are not in a position to have another PhD program in this state.” Well, Jack, Lake and… yes, and Petersburg Progress Group did not in fact take kindly to that. I can’t totally confirm that he did this, but the head of the board of regents was a person named Betty Ann Staton and she loved to sail. She kept her yacht at the St. Pete Yacht Club. Yeah. I’m almost positive this happened. Lake called her up and basically said, “Look, Betty Ann, I know that you like yachting and you like sailing and you really are thankful you’ve got a place for your yacht at the St. Pete Yacht Club.” She was, “Yeah, Jack, you’re absolutely right.” He said, “Well, look, Betty Ann, we need a little help from you with this PhD program,” and she said, “Well, Jack, you know, the board just doesn’t think that that’s appropriate.” And Jack said, “Look, Betty Ann, you’ve got two weeks. Either you get that PhD program fixed up or we’ll get that yacht out of there.” And we got the program. Okay, so that was incredibly political power, sort of like bringing the lieutenant governor in early on and saying, “See those two guys?” [laughing]
Peter: Oh no, he might’ve been wrong, he was not in doubt.
Peter: [laughing] Okay, so – and we were the beneficiary of this and we could not figure out for a long time, Joe, how this could have happened, because it was like a complete about our face…
Joe: Reversal, yeah.
Peter: …complete reversal. And so…
Joe: It’s all that when you’ve a yacht parking.
Peter: Oh yeah, yacht. Yeah, exactly. Well, okay, and then we can fast forward to 1988. The department of interior put out an ad saying the they were looking for a new home for a big coastal laboratory that they had that was in Massachusetts. And they basically said, “If you’re interested you have until December 21st or something like that.” Yeah, basically you had a month and a half to answer what amounted to about 600 pages worth of questions. So I dropped everything I had, I got our associate department together and we spent a month and a half putting together what was in excess a 600-pages proposal. Then I flew them to Massachusetts and hand-delivered that to the head of the agency, who was there and that I’d never met. By early February they had decided on the final four, so final four being Columbia University in New York City, University of Rhode Island, which was a power house at that time and still is, and then a triumvirate of North Carolina Universities – Duke, North Carolina State and North Carolina – and the University of South Florida, which was a shocker to everybody, what are these guys doing in there? So the review team, they got scientific reviewers from all over the United States and they brought them here, there were six of them and they were all basically luminaries in their field, they were top notch people. And we were the last group to be visited. The chancellor of the state University system came, the head of oceanography from Florida State came, the mayor came and gave a great talk to heads of the Chamber of Commerce, of St. Pete Progress, and then the St. Pete Progress had a big dinner that first evening for this review team and Andy Barns from the St. Petersburg Times stood up and said, “If you guys come we’ll put up $100,000 for you and endowed lecture series, the eminent scholars like you’re serious.” And van Rosenstiel said, “I’ll help endow a fellowship in the name of Robert Garrels with 25,000.” And nothing like that had ever happened and about a month later there was a unanimous vote that the University of South Florida would be the new home for a coastal geology lab, which was unbelievable. It’s the first time the University of South Florida had ever competed on a national stage. We were up against big guys. Can you imagine our basketball team taking on a combination of Duke, North Carolina State, North Carolina and winning? Uh-uh, no. So anyway, this was…
Joe: I think there would be a few NBA Teams that would lose to that.
Peter: They might, yeah. And you can see what’s happened. The Downtown Partnership was key to this because the federal government was not in a position to finance the renovation of the Studebaker building, it just didn’t have the money. So the Downtown Partnership funded that and then basically was paid back over a five-year period through basically a real estate agreement. The management of that property is still going on with the Downtown Partnership.
Joe: So with regard to the financing, you’ve been talking about the $600,000 endowment, we had a time when that was a lot of money. Back when they were originally buying the land, was this individuals who were buying the land, or at that point did the Downtown Partnership already have the funds…?
Peter: They had it.
Joe: They had it. So how was that money seeded and then how did you get to the point where you had this 600,000 to give amongst other, and there was I’m sure, that many years later? So what’s the revenue model? And obviously the dues don’t contribute that much.
Joe: So how did the original funding get there to buy the land and then how did that grow?
Peter: Well, okay, if you go back to that period, Joe, there are a lot of local banks that are not part of any of the big chains, so Bank of America wasn’t… So we had Landmark Union Trust, we had Home Federal, we had all these local banks and so those people all gave substantial amounts of money, I think there were 13 banks in downtown St. Petersburg. So the paper gave a lot of money…
Joe: To the partnership?
Peter: …to the partnership, the paper did. Although those banks did, and a lot of the big law firms were major contributors. So the partnership controlled a very large pool of money that they used to buy, first they bought the land and created the way to build a University in, and they basically endowed the chair in marine science for the University of South Florida. This went on for quite a while. If you look at the endowed fellowships and, for instance, I mentioned the eminent scholars lecture series that Andy Barns contributed through with the St. Pete Times. That started out at 100,000 and that endowment right now was worth almost a million dollars. And so they expanded the ability of USF marine sciences from bringing in one person a year to provide some key lectures on some cutting-edge topic in the oceans, to having a group of four or five people come and they spend a week and they’re from all over the world. And so it’s an amazing thing that’s growing out of this interest in the oceans which I’m just thankful, everybody here can be thankful that they not only had the vision, but they had the ability to translate that into some considerable action.
Joe: And then as part of the wranglings there was a property management aspect of the Downtown Partnership’s involvement. So does that manifest? I know that you’re just up for renewal for one of the buildings, and then I thought there was a building where the Kate Tiedemann school is that was originally managed by the…
Peter: There’s three. Well, we started out with the Studebaker building, which the city of St. Petersburg gave. Bob Ulrich, who was an important member of the Downtown Partnership at the time that the USGS initiative started, was the mayor of the city of St. Petersburg and he got very excited about the idea that we had a chance to attract a federal laboratory with scientists here. And so he basically championed with Bob Stewart, who was a city counselor member. The purchase of the Studebaker building, and they put it up and basically said if you, the scientist, you relocate here, and you create a big center for coastal geology you will basically have this land and the building at no cost. Now the building was not in great shape, it was full of pigeons and other wonderful things, rats and vermin. And so that’s where the partnership basically stepped in and said, “Look, we’ll put up over a million dollars to renovate this to whatever you want.” And so Anet Willingham who was an architect and Dave Bret had several trips to Reston, Virginia where they basically said to the federal people in the department of interior, “Tell us what you want. Here’s this footprint for this building, it’s two stories, we’ll put in there whatever you want, however you want it arranged.” Which was absolutely amazing, they’d never ever had anything like this happen. And so the first five-year agreement, and they go in five-year cycles, the Downtown Partnership was basically committed to and did all of the property management, the renovation of this facility and on and on and on. The USGS was thrilled with them in, so the next time around they gave them another five years and at that point the legislator got excited and the USGS had filled up the Studebaker building, and they needed more space. And so thanks to Senator Sullivan, all of the sudden there’s a state initiative for a brand-new building in St. Petersburg they’re getting building, and that appears. And then there’s another one and the one you’re referring to, which is the young building made after congressman Young that’s sitting directly adjacent to the new business college. So basically what we started with was one lab, six people, now we have three labs and 130 scientists in St. Petersburg that are with the US Geological Survey. And through wow, the Downtown Partnership, St. Petersburg Progress has been the group that has managed the real estate, and Dave Bret and his team have done such a good job that it’s held up with the government and they basically say, “I don’t think anybody else could do it any better.” None of our scientist would want to leave, they just say, “Hey, this is great.” Because these other places people are running them stuff, the carpets are soiled in, there’s maybe leaks in the ceiling.
Peter: No, no. So anyway, this is something we can be proud of. And yeah, you’re right, they just signed up for another five years and I think it will continue.
Joe: It’s a real testimony, this is exactly just in the stories that you’ve told us so far about how a small group of determined people with support from local government and local money and organizing the impact – and I’m sure it happens in other cities, it’s not just St. Pete, but the consistent feeling of limitlessness with these sorts of things, for me personally that surprised me, I’ve seen that throughout the history of St. Pete and I see it happening today as well.
Joe: I feel very lucky to be in this place where this limitlessness exists.
Peter: It’s interesting because if you go other places and people always say, “Wow, how could that have possibly happened?” And you realize that it is really distinctive and it’s not like other places don’t have money, but they don’t have an active, long-term involvement. This is decadal, it’s for decades plus of active participation. And it’s so interesting, because if you look way back when Lake and Greene and Nix and all these people sat down and thought about it, what they wanted was they wanted the top notch intellects from around the world that are scientist to be coming in here as graduate students, and then some of them would stay – that’s exactly what’s happened.
Joe: I know places have money, but I almost think that us not having that kind of money maybe plays a little bit into how this happens, because it forces a scrappiness. And I think it also forces a re-envisioning because you’re not coming from a place where – not that people don’t want their names on things – but it’s not this big institutional process around the money that people are a little more – and this is somewhat a bit of conjecture, but purity in what they want, the fact that what their prize was was to get these intellectuals here because that’s what really is gonna seed this place. And I think that that’s unique because all the things that go around, the pomp and circumstance is just like we have our rusty windows, let’s get the smartest people we can in this room – and that’s great.
Peter: And the Partnership, what I loved about it was that in 1991 there was a very bright graduate student for which everything was intuitively obvious, so there are some disgusting people like that, they are so bright that you wonder what’s going on? So he needed to jump up because as he and his wife were operating out of their garage and building fancy systems. So anyway, he came to me and at that point I was head of the Marine Science, and so I went to David Wilbanks, the head of Sun Bank, and said, “Hey, this guy needs some help. He has to submit an SBIR phase one, but to do that he has to have the okay of a president of a bank.” And so we came in together, Mike and I and Dave met, and then Dave asked him a few questions and he turned to me and he said, “Look, Peter, is this a good guy?” And I said, “Yeah, this guy is really good, Dave.” And so he signed. A couple of weeks later he gets his SBIR phase one and about 12 years later he sells Ocean Optics for 50 million dollars. There are still in Pinellas county and Orange county – 220 or 230 jobs – very high paying jobs that are part of Ocean Optics. So that legacy lives on. He gave the Partnership, because they helped him early on one share of stock when they first started the company and everybody in the Partnership left and they said, “Well, where are we gonna spend our dime?” So then they sold out and one share of stock was worth $114,000 bucks.
Peter: And so the Partnership turned around and they’ve put that into a fund to try to stimulate, as you know, technical businesses in St. Petersburg with the idea that hey, if we could help get another Ocean Optics going then we can generate even more money and then try and make St. Petersburg a hub for the kind of thing that Austin, Texas and Route 128 are known for, I don’t know…
Joe: Yeah, and I think that those companies are still going, I think that if I remember the three, there is obviously SavvyCard, which I was involved with for a while, LumaStream and then it was Priatek in there as well, or…?
Peter: Priatek and then also PureMolecular.
Peter: So he, John Paul – and if you’re ever wondering what you’re really eating for sea food at a restaurant, this is the guy who can tell you whether it’s really Chinese tilapia or fish, yeah.
Joe: Oh, yeah.
Peter: Yeah, or salmon or whatever. I didn’t know if there was one other… there was another thing that the Partnership did or the business community in St. Pete did that I think is astounding and it still is basically a wonderful example of how a small group of dedicated people can make a huge difference. That is the research laboratory, if you’re going down toward Albert Whitted airfield, on 1st Street you look at this big beautiful building with blue windows and everything else that’s three stories high, 120,000 square feet. That’s the first time in the state of Florida that two state agencies collaborated in building a research facility, and in fact at the time, that it was proposed by a couple of us who were in the agencies, the people in our respective groups that, “No,” that, “we don’t wanna do that, we have different procedures, this is never gonna work,” and on and on. Well, thankfully the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Partnership and the city thought otherwise, and they went to the legislature and I went a couple of times with them, so I actually saw this happen – they were able to testify in the Senate, in the House, and they got the head of the department of National Resources, he was not a fan of this thing and they dragged him in, and he testified that he thought it was a really good idea even though he wasn’t [laughing]… he wasn’t really convinced and then thankfully Mary Grizzle, who would in 27 years in the Senate had never been given a dime for a building, stood up and said, “Okay, I want the building.” So all of the sudden there is a huge pile of money for a building in St. Petersburg and it’s now a model for collaboration, and it couldn’t have happened without Marine or Mile and the Downtown Partnership all getting, the Chamber of Commerce, Larry Arnold, the city of St. Petersburg again, the course sending the Grizzles up. It’s still there and thank goodness, it’s a beautiful – it won a big architecture award when it was first built.
Joe: It reminds me of a theme that you always hear, the EDC, JP says it and Mayor Kriseman says it and it’s just… I think what Mayor Kriseman says is, “Once you get here we gotcha, alright?” And that seems to be the case because the theme in the stories that you’ve been telling is just get them here whatever it takes, and once they’re here they breathe the air and it changes them.
Peter: Actually the last person that I hired, Mia Breitbart, has become world famous in a very short period of time. If we hadn’t gotten her when she was bright new right out of graduate school, we couldn’t have touched her because she’s a superstar and she’s invited all over the world to give talks. And you couldn’t dynamite her out of here. She loves St. Petersburg and she loves her graduate students she’s got, and she has been able to attract other people who are really good. And so unless there’s some major upheaval or revolution that I can’t anticipate and I don’t think it’ll happen, they have in the college of marine science about the strongest team of faculty I’ve ever seen, they are really good. So this underscores the effect that Lake’s dream and Partnership’s dream has come true and it’s still going. I think we’ve mentioned the other things that could happen that could make St. Petersburg even a bigger player in marine science and more attractive and active.
Joe: Potentially the first place ever to have a fish slide, right? I know that that was the project that we talked about a couple of months ago…
Joe: …with the waste treatment plant that you were looking into the fish farm, completed with the fish slide to get to the processing plant across the bay, which would have been not really…
Peter: We still have a chance. I saw an incredible facility in Northern Wisconsin that was turning out 30,000 heads of lettuce a day and they’re doing fish and combining aquaculture and aquaponics. And so I think that St. Petersburg is still in a position and has the land and the interest in having something like that that wouldn’t just be an economic driver but also it would be something, it could have a nice academic program and would be great for our restaurants, so yeah.
Joe: Sure, yeah. And just for a little context on that for the listeners. Originally the Downtown Partnership, when they decommissioned the waste treatment plant, it took some time to do some research on the viability of a fish farm and there just happens to be a fish processing plant right across the bay and so it was concepted of that there might be a tube that connects the two which we call the fish slide, which… so…
Peter: Very good.
Joe: I found that somewhat humorous, probably not as funny for the fish but…
Peter: [laughing] Yeah, they actually – Obama Sea Food has probably a million-dollars’ worth of automatic flaying and processing equipment that they are not even using, so they would really be happy to have a partner.
Peter: Yeah, that could work out and so hopefully we can… maybe it will take a couple of years, Joe, but I don’t see why we can’t accomplish that.
Joe: Sure. Yeah, it’s cool.
Peter: Then yeah, that’s great.
Joe: One name you’d mentioned which I have a blind spot for is St. Pete Progress, was it an entity you had mentioned a couple of times?
Peter: That’s the precursor to the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.
Joe: So it was precursor, okay.
Peter: Sorry I didn’t make that clear.
Joe: Sounded like they were in parallel for a little while.
Peter: No, it’s just a group that changed its name – I can’t tell you exactly when, but until probably the mid 1990’s all the way from the beginning that was St. Petersburg Progress Inc. and then it became the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. And I’m sorry, I used to know the reason that they did it and I don’t anymore, Marty Northmile might know, but I can’t remember, Joe, why that was true.
Joe: So what are some of the things now? I know that you’ve got a few things going on personally, different companies that you’re working with, and then you’re still connected to the Partnership. What are some of the things that are going on now with you that you’re most interested in or excited about?
Peter: I think that the initiative that Bill Hogarth and Senator Brandes have started. Hogarth was able to get $100,000 in terms of planning money, they would think about ways that our community, our universities, our medical schools, our marine science groups could take a look at the Gulf of Mexico. Here is something that 40% of the fish in the United States that come from our waters come from the Gulf, and it’s a 40 billion dollar a year industry, so it’s bigger than citrus and cattle combined. Of course we had the oil spill, we have hurricanes, there’s a lot about that system that we don’t understand and as you well know, there’s pressure to at least unlock part of the Florida offshore areas for drilling. And so what’s interesting about this is that I think the State has some incredibly valuable resource out there that we don’t understand really well. And so I would hope is that we can get a scientific effort that also represents a major educational effort, not just for kids in school, K-to-12 system, but also for the general public. So for instance when the Hogarth, which is the new research vessel, goes offshore to take a look at the fishes that may have been impacted by the oil spill, we can have a live broadcast right from the ocean. So we pipe that back in via the Internet, so all of our schools and maybe senior centers and city hall can actually watch Steve Murawski and his students as they’re collecting fish or sharks; or maybe Bob Weisberg as he and his people are putting in, the buoys that measure where the currents are going, how fast and how much mixing is taking on on the ocean. And so I’m hopeful that we actually can do something with this embryonic effort that allows us to expand our society’s appreciation of the importance of the oceans, so that we have more enlightened voters, maybe we take better care of our huge fish stocks that are out there, maybe we think about what’s a rational way to have some rain protected area so we’re not just out fishing everything at a time when, say, the fish need a little bit of break so that they can reproduce. Those are the kinds of things that I think this can be done in a wonderful, international way with Mexico and Cuba thanks to Steve Murawski. So anyway, I’m very excited about that, that’s gonna take a lot of work. But I’m hopeful that we can become a center for doing things in a way that nobody’s done. So that to me is very exciting, it really is.
Joe: I’d like to get a little philosophical if it’s alright.
Peter: [laughing] I don’t know, Joe, I might be gone.
Joe: [laughing] You’ve by any measure and you’re very much still going, you’ve had a long and high-quality career in life in St. Petersburg. What gives you meaning on a day to day basis now?
Peter: Our youngest daughter brought down a group of intercity kids that were fortunate enough to be introduced to Duncan McClellan and his glass blowing group, Bob Devin Jones at Studio@620, Teresa Greely and Angela Lodge at the Oceanography Camp facilities in Boca Ciega Bay, where they have done basically a science camp for eighth graders. And so watching these kids who in some cases don’t have enough to eat at home, who have never – none of them – had ever been in an airplane in their life and just seeing them exposed to new thoughts and new things and watching the excitement of these kids and realizing that this was gonna change them forever. Not exactly sure how…
Peter: …but almost certainly in a very positive way. And so one of the people that was a big part of that effort was Shaniqua Gladney who was an African-American graduate student in the College of Marine Science. And so here are these inner-city kids, they are looking at basically someone who is a model for what they can do, they look at her and they say, “Hey, look, she did it, I can do it. She is a good scientist, I can be a scientist.” And so that really excites me. When I first started oceanography was basically old, white men like I’ve become and now thankfully the diversity at the College has increased greatly and so we have more women scientists there than we have men scientists. And so the idea that our graduate students can basically interact productively with young people, introduce them to the excitement and challenges of science and then have that be translated through their lives is something that I really care about, and I get excited about.
Joe: And obviously the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg is doing a lot of work in that arena of diversity and I believe you and Suzie participated in a program with them…
Peter: Yes. My talented wife was in the first group, I think, that went through and had a very meaningful experience there and we have made as a result of that experience, have a new friend, Keisha Bell that we have enjoyed a lot. So yeah, I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to participate too, Joe, because I think there’s a lot of things I could learn about, maybe some of the prejudices I have that I don’t even appreciate or understand.
Joe: Well, I haven’t been through the program either so when you decide to do it let me know and I will join you.
Peter: Okay, good. [laughing] Yeah, we could both find out [laughing], right.
Joe: And we’ll make sure to link to that program in the show notes page of the podcast.
Peter: That was… maybe the last thing is about the minority participation in ocean sciences. Basically if you looked at all of the sciences in the whole of United States and the graduate programs, the very worst for including basically African-Americans people was marine science. So basically marine science has always been the poster child for how not to do it. So in 2004 we started a program called “bridge to the doctorate” which was basically directed at trying to attract talented African-American and say Hispanic students to our graduate program. And the Partnership put up $160,000 in it as a part of an endowed fellowship drive so that we can attract a minority, but not only attract a minority to this graduate program but support them. So this helped to generate $500,000 in matching from the state of Florida. It was so impressive to the National Science Foundation that at a time when we had applied for a million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation, the University of South Florida, Engineering and College of Marine Science tied with another institution. So the program manager said, “Okay, South Florida has in this building a privately funded endowment, therefore they get the million dollars.” So those gifts tipped over a one-million-dollar grant, and then the follow up to that was, just imagine – somebody from New York calls up, I have no idea, he says he’s from the Sloan Foundation, said, “We’ve heard about your minority program, I want to come down and visit.” And I said, “Well, fine.” And that’s when this guy comes down, spends two days examining us and telling me right off the bat, “Well, we have 42 Universities we support with a minority program and we don’t have any room for a new one, but somebody told me I had to come down so I’m just coming down, so don’t think you’re gonna have anything positive happen.” I said, “Fine, that’s fine.” If somebody from New York thinks enough of South Florida to come down here and visit, that’s enough for me. So the guy, we were driving back, I’m driving him to the airport two days later and he said, “This is really, really bad.” And I said, “Oh, I’m really sorry, I’m sorry, the visit was so bad?” He said, “No, no,” he said, “it’s really tough because I’m gonna have to figure out who to throw out to put you in.” So we got Sloan Foundation’s support starting in 2006; they still have it. For 12 years the Sloan Foundation has been supporting the minority program that the College of Marine Science has.
Joe: Small ripples turn in big waves, don’t they?
Peter: Big waves – yeah, right. To the tsunamis. [laughing]
Joe: One more little bit of appreciation I’d like to give to Suzie. We had Michael Pastreich on the show recently and he told the story of the real transformation when he first came, and then at one point when they went into the realm of austerity, that some of the changes that really… the board had a lot of turnover and there was a point where within six month they turned over the entire board but three people and Suzie was one of the three that was a rock through that whole process and is still there today, so I think those are greatly appreciated and very valuable presence.
Peter: My wife has been on the board of the Florida Orchestra since 1985 and she spends hours and hours talking to people about it. We love classical music, we are thrilled with what’s been happening, musicians are great, we’re so fortunate to have people like Jeff Multer, who has played in the “All-Star” Orchestra, has been selected for that. And it’s a wonderful thing. They have connected with our community in a more meaningful way than I’ve ever seen an orchestra, because they’ve given concerts at All Children’s Hospital, at the VA, they’ve done it–
Joe: Carter Woodson, I think.
Peter: Yeah, Carter Woodson, the Garths have funded a very important program at Carter Woodson. And so usually you think of them, orchestras, as they play at concert halls. Well, this orchestra does more than them. And so the new Maestro, Michael Francis, is just phenomenally talented and the board is led by Janette Peru who is also really top notch, so I think my wife feels like it’s taken a long time, but I think that it looks like things are really headed the right way. This is great. So thanks, she deserves an immense amount of credit.
Joe: I appreciated and really enjoyed the conversation. We’d like to finish each show with a shout-out and the idea is it’s just someone in the community who is under the radar maybe, that is doing really great work that could use or deserves a little more attention, or just someone you want to – it does not have to be just one person, it can be a couple.
Peter: Oh, sure. Obviously, I’m highly prejudiced but I think you brought up my wife, and I think she’s really done immense amount in her medical practice and she volunteers at the Free Clinic. So that and the orchestra, the orchestra being her third child. But another person that I think is not appreciated as much as she ought to be is Helen Levine who works at the University of South Florida, but basically, she has been an important part of so many things in our community and is quietly going about helping so many different groups, whether it’s the Holocaust Museum, the University of South Florida or St. Petersburg, city of St. Petersburg, she worked in the Hillsborough county for a while. When Jack Latvala stood up and gave a presentation when they dedicated the new Business College, which is so beautiful, he looked down at the audience and he said, “Okay, where is Helen Levine?” And so she raises her hand in the back of the room and he said, “Okay, everybody, you know what? You don’t need to thank me. Without that person there would be no College of Business.” So anyway, shout-out to her.
Peter: She is incredible.
Joe: Thank you.
Peter: Yeah, thank you.
Joe: And thank you for all the great work you’ve done, it’s greatly appreciated.
Peter: It’s been exciting [laughing].
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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.