To fully appreciate the “after,” one must understand the “before.”
Tom James grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. He took over the financial services company (Raymond James) his father founded decades “before” the city’s ascendence. That ascendance would be furthered in 2018 by the opening of his James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.
“I always said they rolled up the streets at 6 PM,” James recalled to Forbes.com.
Anyone who lived in St. Pete “before” shares similar stories of downtown emptying out after the 9-to-5ers went home, a lack of restaurants and hotels, nothing to see, nothing to do, nowhere to go and a general torpor blanketing the area.
“We had a lot of natural beauty and we had the waterfront downtown,” James said, but the area’s assets never came together to create a destination attractive to anyone other than snowbirds and beach bums.
That began to change in the early 2000s. Rising housing prices in the greater Tampa Bay area encouraged young people to begin buying homes in St. Petersburg’s urban core.
“I had a lot of employees move down there because it was very attractive, near the waterfront, near downtown, and all of a sudden, there was a rejuvenated marketplace,” James recalls.
Demographic trends occur gradually. One major accelerator of St. Petersburg’s vibrancy occurred on a single day after years of work. That would be January 11, 2011, when the Dalí Museum reopened in an architectural fantasy on the Tampa Bay waterfront, welcoming visitors the world over to what would become one of the highest rated museum attractions globally.
St. Pete: “After”
“I think youth and culture really shifted the environment in St. Petersburg,” Laura Hine, Executive Director at The James Museum told Forbes.com.
The University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, adjacent to the Dalí, rapidly expanded in the early 2000s. Residence halls were added.
Murals started popping up. And craft breweries.
St. Pete now boasts a nationally significant public arts portfolio and the most robust craft beer scene in Florida.
“Look at the young folks. What do they want? They want to go to restaurants, they want entertainment, they want activities, they want to bike, they want to walk, and it’s all there,” Steve Hayes, president and CEO at Visit St. Pete/Clearwater said.
It is now.
The Chihuly Collection, a stunning permanent display of superstar glass artist Dale Chihuly’s room-filling sculptures moved into a new building along the city’s Central Avenue cultural corridor in 2016. The James Museum opened a half mile down the street toward the water two years later.
James was president at the Dalí when it moved into its new location. Going through that process inspired him to recreate it with his own collection of Western and wildlife art.
“What am I doing with this crazy collection I’ve amassed–4,000 pieces of art–I thought this was really a nascent draw for the world, to come to a place that’s beautiful (for art),” James said.
To the city’s longstanding artistic scion, the encyclopedic St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, museum’s dedicated to the world’s most famous Surrealist, the world’s most famous glass artist, Western art, murals everywhere–all within walking distance–and a soon to open American Arts and Crafts Museum, give downtown extraordinary cultural breadth and depth.
There’s an opera and an orchestra to boot.
“We are at this tipping point where we can drive a whole new arts and culture tourist to come here. We have this critical mass of really high-level museums, with all different genres, its remarkable,” Hine said. “People who are looking for arts and culture destinations, of course you’re going to think about New York, San Francisco–but where can you be in the most beautiful weather, on the water, come to Florida, and you can have all that arts and culture here.”
At the same time, more restaurants, bars, hotels, art galleries and boutiques were filling in spaces throughout downtown, along with new residential towers, creating a cityscape that over time has transformed St. Petersburg from stupor to stupendous.
The latest attraction: the all-new, 26-acre, St. Pete Pier which opened in summer of 2020 at a cost of nearly $100 million with restaurants, shopping, activities and an educational Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center sharing information on the Bay’s ecology.
Credit need be given for St. Pete’s “after” to generations of civic leaders bold enough to envision it.
St. Pete landed the Dalí Museum without any preexisting connection to the artist or the collectors who amassed the artworks. What amounted to a cold call in the early 1980s offering to build the museum and care for the collection was accepted. That facility could have been built anywhere.
Planning for the Pier began in 2004.
While a certain organic alchemy has fueled St. Pete’s rise, it wasn’t the result of slop luck.
Managing St. Petersburg’s Growth
A similar amount of vision will need to be exercised to ensure St. Pete stays in the sweet spot it has found, avoiding the runaway growth turning other mid-sized Southern cities such as Austin, Texas or Nashville, Tennessee from “place to be,” to “place to leave.”
“It’s something that people in St. Pete are asking, ‘how do we maintain this magic that happened over the last 15 years or so; how do we maintain that and not let that become South Beach?’” Hine said.
Skyrocketing real estate prices can drive out the residents who sparked the turn. Overburdened city utilities, sprawl, traffic, a lack of affordable housing for service industry employees–these are the bugaboos of becoming one of America’s most desirable places to live and visit. Add to that climate change and sea level rise with a waterfront location.
“I would say there are ways to deal with this, and if you’re a good corporate citizen, you’re working on low-income housing, you’re working on the road systems all the time, we’ve got a lot of work to do just on the bus system,” James said.
James meets once a month along with a group of CEO’s from the area to discuss maintaining rents, workforce housing ratios, public transportation, water supply, appropriate levels of development.
“My business is directly linked to whether we can solve education, can we solve transportation, can we solve water, can we solve all these problems, and unless you can get the groups who can impact those kinds of decisions engaged, you’re going to have a terrible time keeping up,” James said.
St. Pete’s already rapid growth rate has further accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Metropolitan areas in the Northeast emptied out with residents looking for somewhere less densely populated, more available for outdoor activities. Many of them found St. Pete. White collar workers able to work remotely and highly advantageous tax rates have brought even more people to the area recently. There’s also been an influx of early retirees, people in their 50s, not their 70s, attracted to the cultural opportunities and active lifestyle.
“We have a lot of New Yorkers who are calling this place home now and they’re looking for that same type of experience that they had in New York,” Hayes said. “Can they get that here? The answer is ‘yes.’”
Up next: Fairgrounds
St. Pete’s next must-see cultural attraction opens later this June. Fairgrounds St. Pete offers escape from reality, a Meow Wolf-like, all-encompassing, 15,000-square-foot, artist-made, choose-your-own-adventure experience.
“Our Fairgrounds St. Pete team and over 60 commissioned artists have exceeded my vision and expectations in every way,” Fairgrounds co-founder and CEO Liz Dimmitt told Forbes.com. “I’m proud to report that all the installations and artist works are even more exciting in real life than I imagined and, of course, experiencing all the art and installations together just compounds the ‘wow’ factor.”
As St. Pete’s first immersive art and tech experience, Dimmitt hopes Fairgrounds offers Florida-based artists a platform to present their work to a large audience, adds more power to the economic engine that has become the area’s creative community, and becomes, “most importantly, a super cool place to take out of town friends and impress them!”
Vibrant, lively, artsy–St. Pete’s “after” offers residents and visitors much more than sun and sand (but there’s plenty of that, too).