Cynthia Johnson comes to her new role at Pinellas County Economic Development with significant experience — and some bold ideas to keep the region’s hot streak rolling.
When Mike Meidel retired in April from his position as director of Pinellas County Economic Development, he left behind a county transformed. Having held the directorship since 2004, Meidel oversaw more than a decade of expansion and growth that saw St. Petersburg land on dozens of “best of” lists. Millennials and tech companies flocked to the city, as well as the county’s other municipalities, which benefited mightily from St. Pete’s turn in the spotlight.
Today, Pinellas ranks at or near the top in several statewide economic categories, including number of manufacturing, pharmaceutical and aerospace jobs, as well as dollar value of U.S. Dept. of Defense contracts.
After a national search for Meidel’s successor, the responsibility to continue Pinellas County’s rise falls to Cynthia Johnson, a 20-year veteran of PCED who most recently served as the organization’s director of small business and supplier diversity. Born and raised in St. Pete, she worked for Pinellas County Schools before transitioning to PCED, where she’s made history as the first woman and first Black person to lead the agency.
The Business Observer recently met with Johnson for a wide-ranging discussion of her priorities and goals, as well as economic issues facing Pinellas County. Edited excerpts:
Q: You worked with Mike Meidel for many years. How would you characterize your relationship with him, and what did you learn from the way he led PCED?
A: One of the things I've always admired about Mike’s leadership style is his cool, calm demeanor under pressure. He always delivered such a steady response to our changing world of economic development. And he was always so very informed about what's happening in our industry.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the first Black woman to lead PCED?
A: I take that responsibility very seriously — a responsibility to lead in a transparent, diverse and inclusive manner. As a leader, my focus will be on diversifying the economy so that all citizens can partake in economic growth. But part of my responsibility as a public administrator is to make sure that I'm being fiscally responsible with our public dollars. And we're looking at how all our citizens can be a part of the prosperity that Pinellas County has to offer.
Q: The pandemic brought economic headwinds to Pinellas County. What needs to be done to get the local economy back to where it was, pre-COVID?
A: To me, the core of economic development is education, because workforce is a key component. If we don't educate our workforce to be able to take the jobs my team goes out to recruit, or works with existing industry to expand, then we're missing the economic bullseye. We need to identify opportunities for economic mobility for citizens, and that will come about as we develop more strategic alliances with our education providers, from St. Petersburg College to the University of South Florida and Pinellas Technical College.
Q: What’s some of the messaging you intend to use to pitch Pinellas County to companies looking to expand or relocate?
A: As we attract businesses, we want to showcase the uniqueness of our 24 municipalities. We have 24 municipalities, but we are one Pinellas County. Each one of our communities has a unique place of belonging. And as we promote that unique place of belonging, we're able to match up what a business needs with the specific needs that we have in our various communities. But more importantly, we have decided as an organization to put a tremendous amount of focus on the retention of our businesses that we currently have and what we're going to do to help with their workforce issues.
Q: What are your hopes and expectations for the Tropicana Field site in St. Pete?
A: This is a grand opportunity for the city of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and the region, collectively, to develop a location that has tremendous potential for economic prosperity, housing and workforce development. It can be the epicenter of an employment center. I think it would be nice if we were able to retain the Rays … but whichever developer the city council selects, it’s going to be good for the community because of the process they went through to get to that point.