By Whitney Elfstrom
Young professionals met Wednesday night for the Engage St. Pete: Grow With Your City panel discussion to explore new ideas of how to further innovate and diversify downtown St. Petersburg.
The event was held in the heart of downtown at the Museum of Fine Arts with the first hour set aside for around 200 guests to spend time networking within the community.
While St. Pete locals engaged in productive conversation over free cocktails and delicious food, “Jack and Diane” by John Mellencamp echoed through the massive cement corridor.
Former Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska was set to be the keynote speaker but was replaced by Sridhar Sundaram, the dean of the College of Business.
As the sun set through the floor to ceiling windows, Sundaram stood behind a podium and read Wisniewska’s speech.
Sundaram — who was scouted by the former regional chancellor in 2016 — made sure her message of driving the city through innovation, diversity and community.
When he finished reading her speech, he walked to the front of the crowd and explained, in his own words, what sets St. Petersburg apart from other cities.
“What brings us together is going to be that next level of engagement of people like you,” said Sundaram. “The younger generation, the young professionals that come in and make this place, bring energy and innovation.”
When he finished, event goers broke into four different workshops: Entrepreneurship, Arts, Urban Development and Sustainability. Initially, a fifth group that focuses on mentorship was planned, but due to Hurricane Irma, the speakers were unable to attend.
Panel speakers lined up at the front of the room and the audience was encouraged to ask questions about all things entrepreneurship related.
Among the entrepreneurs, voices from Green Bench Brewing Company, Chief’s Creole Cafe and The Independent stood out. Each speaker had the opportunity to explain why downtown St. Petersburg is no longer known as a hotspot for “the newlywed and the nearly dead.”
The consensus across the speakers was that St. Petersburg sets itself apart because it’s constantly changing and the community is innovative. Over the past 10 to 15 years the downtown area has transformed and is continuing to move forward, which has started to attract the attention of vacationers and business owners alike.
Aside from innovation running thick in St. Pete locals’ blood, the entrepreneurs also pointed out that the community is known for coming together to help one another thrive.
“For an entrepreneur to be successful, you have to have the support of the community around you and it really works both ways,” said Green Bench co-owner Nathan Stonecipher. “A place like St. Petersburg, for whatever reason, has a critical core of people that live there to really engage and go to support the locals around them who are doing something unique.”
On the other side of the museum, event goers exchanged their hard hats for lab coats to talk sustainability.
The sustainability speakers agreed that the biggest threat to St. Pete sustainability is misinformation of exactly what it means to be sustainable.
“How (do) we reduce our (carbon) footprint when a lot of people either are misunderstood about it or they’re in a mindset that they don’t quite care about it?” said USFSP sustainability planner Brian Pullen.
Several ideas were thrown around on how to combat the problem that comes with those who don’t care about the environment. A few included educating yourself on the different sustainability issues that are affecting St. Petersburg and being sure to get out and vote on election days.
The event concluded with speakers and attendees breaking through the windy night toward Tryst Gastro Lounge to exchange their newly cultivated knowledge with fellow innovators.