J.P. DuBuque, founding president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Economic Development Corp., will be the first to tell you that, despite his title, “the EDC didn’t really start with me.” Founded in 2016, the idea for the organization was a product of the city’s Grow Smarter strategy, a 2014 initiative created by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the City of St. Petersburg, with the goal of improving the city’s ability to support diverse economic growth.
“When I started, I wanted to see what this community could be and do the things to help it get there,” DuBuque says. “That required us to do things a little bit differently than a traditional economic development entity.”
DuBuque, stepping down from his role April 28 to become COO of Rivero, Gordimer & Co., a Tampa accounting firm, says the St. Pete EDC, from the outset, went about its business as a public-private partnership with a highly specific strategy.
“It was about understanding who we were and who we weren’t as a community,” he says. “A lot of times in economic development, communities are ‘whale hunting’ — they’re going after the big project with thousands of jobs and a big name. I wanted us to get the companies that would be a great fit here.”
The results of that plan include more than 2,1000 new local jobs. The EDC also reeled in a whale or two along the way, such as the Cathie Wood-led ARK Investment Management, which relocated from Manhattan to St. Pete in 2021.
The Business Observer spoke with DuBuque in early April, prior to his return to the private sector. about economic development challenges and his career. Edited excerpts:
The EDC has been remarkably successful at recruiting companies to expand or relocate to St. Pete. But regarding the ones that got away, why did they choose not to come here?
There are a couple of projects that we didn’t win, but I don’t think we could have done anything more to win them. In some, maybe most, cases, the projects that we didn’t win, nobody won — the companies ended up not doing anything. We have lost some manufacturing projects because we do not have the appropriate real estate inventory. We’ve got a company right now that we’ve been working with for two years whose owner is in love with St. Pete. He wants to be here but can't find real estate. As soon as we find him the real estate, he’ll open. But that's why we've been successful — if you make that emotional connection, then most leaders will accept something less than perfect.
What should be done about St. Pete's housing challenge?
When we talk about affordable housing, it’s about making sure your housing inventory is attainable by folks at different income levels. One of the things I’ve heard is that it’s too expensive for a college graduate to live in St. Pete. Sure, if they’re looking at a two-bedroom apartment in the Icon. I don't know about you, but when I got out of college, I lived with three other dudes in a house that wasn't in a great neighborhood. Part of what the EDC is trying to do is create more wealth-building careers for residents. There’s no silver bullet, no single action that’s going to create substantive change. It has to be a coordinated, cohesive group effort.
You’ve said you weren’t looking to leave the St. Pete EDC, so what was it about the opportunity with Rivero, Gordimer & Co. that appealed so much to you?
I was an administrator for a CPA firm before moving to Florida, so the duties of the job and what it's going to take to get it done are right in my wheelhouse — there are very few things associated with this role that I'm either not good at or don't enjoy. And being very transparent, going from the nonprofit to for-profit world … I have two kids going to college next fall, and I had to think about that. I wasn’t looking for a raise, but that’s certainly a great benefit.
Isn’t there a bit of irony in the fact that you’re leaving the St. Pete EDC for a company based in Tampa?
Rivero, Gordimer & Co. is a firm that’s based in Tampa but has clients all over the region and all over the U.S. But when you look at our community, before I came to St. Pete, I was at the Tampa EDC. So, I’ve “sold” both cities, and both are amazing. In my sales pitch of St. Pete, I don’t run down Tampa. The fact that we are located 20 miles from Tampa, that’s a real benefit to businesses that come here. Somebody once told me it’s like buying a washer and getting the dryer for free.