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Friday, Oct 24, 2014

Luring a Jabil downtown could spur more growth for St. Pete


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ST. PETERSBURG - Within 4 square miles, there's a leading medical center and research labs doing cutting-edge work in marine science.

Cranes can be seen across town erecting hundreds of new high-end apartment units to meet a growing demand for urban living.

Those incoming urbanites, particularly the young professionals, will be able to walk or bicycle to the city's waterfront, fine art museums, eclectic local shops and craft beer bars and, at least for now, a Major League Baseball stadium.

With corporations such as Google and online retailer Zappos moving from suburban office parks to city centers in recent years, city officials would like to add a major employer or two to the mix in downtown.

They're starting with one of St. Petersburg's biggest corporate citizens. City officials recently put together a proposal trying to convince Jabil to move out of the Gateway area and build a 360,000-square-foot headquarters for its global operations a block east of Tropicana Field.

Jabil executives have been contemplating a new home base, though they've made no comments about where they plan to go or when, except to say they'd like to remain in Pinellas County.

Whether Jabil makes the move or not, the city appears poised to become a hub for biomedical technology and other high-tech industries. A major anchor company such as Jabil might just be the tipping point.

"A vibrant downtown, a medical center, a place where people want to live, they want to work, they want to play and recreate," said Stuart Rogel, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership.

"As I think about downtown St. Pete, I think about the opportunity to develop or create an innovation district."

An innovation district, according to a report published last month by the Brookings Institution, includes a mix of corporations, startups and other business ventures locate close to one another within a vibrant urban center. More companies are choosing to relocate to such areas, driven partly by the preference of younger workers for living in and around downtown areas with easy access to restaurants, bars, shopping and other amenities, according to the report.

Another major factor is the promise of forging beneficial partnerships with other businesses or research centers housed in urban universities.

The report cites economist Gerry Carlino's findings that patents per-capita increase on average by 20 to 30 percent as employment density doubles in metro areas.

The groundwork has already been laid downtown for new business innovation to grow.

There's All Children's Hospital and a cluster of imminent marine research centers near the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. LED technology company LumaStream is renovating a building on First Avenue South where it will train St. Petersburg College students in advanced manufacturing. A business incubator is also planned downtown for biomedical startups.

A major corporate headquarters can solidify a downtown's business community, said Maureen McAvey, senior resident fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute.

"Anytime you have a headquartered company, it gives you a degree of stability and commitment to the community," said McAvey.

Jabil's CEO Mark Mondello has indicated that his Fortune 500 company is committed to this community, though he hasn't given specifics.

"We kind of look at Jabil as a St. Petersburg-based company, and we want to remain as such," said Mondello, whose $17-billion company operates in 33 countries around the globe.

The two biggest factors in Jabil's plans will be operating costs and finding an ideal spot for current and future employees to work, Mondello said.

"We've looked at different properties downtown and different sites downtown, but nothing has been decided," he said.

One option is consolidating the company's 1,600 local employees on a 90-acre plot of land it owns at the northwest corner of Gandy Boulevard and Interstate 275. Another is remaining at the company's current location at the north end of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

A draft plan from the city proposes that Jabil build its headquarters in a five-block area bounded by the eastern edge of Tropicana Field and Eighth Street South between First and Fourth Avenue South, city economic development director Dave Goodwin said.

The site includes several vacant blocks owned by the city as well as a large U-Haul storage facility and a strip mall on Third Avenue South.

Jabil's new headquarters would be located less than a mile from All Children's Hospital, which is part of Johns Hopkins Medicine's leading research hospital system, and a block away from the Edge district, a flourishing commercial and residential corridor along Central Avenue.

The company has also taken a strong interest in research at the University of South Florida and All Children's, said Mondello, who sits on the hospital's board, though he did not say whether physical proximity to these centers would impact Jabil's future location.

Under the preliminary plan for the downtown headquarters, the city would contribute $8 million to help the company acquire the necessary land in exchange for meeting job creation targets - specifically, adding 500 jobs within the first five years.

The city's land would be leased to Jabil for 30 years for a small fee and then deeded to the company if it generates sufficient jobs.

Because the land is situated within St. Petersburg's Community Redevelopment Area, the city would expect to recoup its investment from the increased property tax revenue generated by Jabil's presence.

The draft plan is far from set in stone. Should Jabil wish to move forward, details could change dramatically before it would go before City Council for approval, Goodwin said.

Bringing a company such as Jabil downtown would be a "game-changer" that would accelerate economic growth adjacent to Tropicana Field, Goodwin said.

The Edge district, which runs along Central Avenue and First Avenues North and South between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 16th streets, has seen several large residential developments go up in recent years and a string of new restaurants, bars and retail shops open.

Employees would be walking distance from several downtown apartment and condo complexes as well as baseball games at the Trop; in fact, under the draft plan, Jabil's surface parking would be open for the public on evenings and weekends to accommodate Tampa Bay Rays fans.

While bringing Jabil downtown would be good for the city's long-term economic fortunes, it would not significantly impact the future of the Rays at the Tropicana Field site.

The ABC Coalition, the group formed to study possible stadium sites, concluded in its 2010 report that the biggest driver of future attendance would be the number of people who could easily get there within a 30-minute drive, said Rogel, a member of the task force.

"It's not going to hurt, but it's not going to turn the fortunes of the team around or the attendance around in of itself," Rogel said.

The Rays' departure could actually open the door to even greater possibilities for an innovation district to blossom.

In 2008, the team's ownership pitched the idea of moving the stadium downtown and developing the 85-acre Tropicana Field site into a neighborhood of apartments and condos with 1 million square feet of retail.

"That would instantly become one of the biggest sites in the county," said Pinellas County Economic Development Director Mike Meidel.

"It would be a wonderful opportunity to have a walkable, mixed-use urban center to anchor that part of downtown," he said.

Proximity to the interstate and the possibility of light rail line stops nearby also make the area attractive for businesses.

While downtown's potential hasn't yet been tapped, all the elements are there, Rogel said.

"The pieces are all there. It's just, how do you continue to grow and enhance those pieces?" he said.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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