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SmartBurg initiative aims to engage St. Pete on economic growth opportunities

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There’s a new way for St. Pete residents to get engaged in their community. Justin Bean, a young professional who relocated to St. Pete as an adult, launched SmartBurg, an initiative aimed at increasing community engagement and furthering economic growth and development throughout the city.

The group’s mission statement is to be “focused on the future of St. Pete” and to “accomplish smart economic growth through innovative, creative and competitive ideas.”

His idea isn’t entirely new. It started last Spring when Bean began meeting with Alan DeLisle, the city’s development administrator. The two began meeting and swapping economic development ideas and decided to keep it up. Bean quickly decided more people needed to be brought into the conversation and gave the group a name.

So he started inviting people to join in the conversation. It began with just a handful of people but grew quickly. By the time of the group’s last meeting Wednesday, Bean said some 30-40 people showed up to talk with city staff about various projects.

“[The city is] not dodging any questions,” Bean said. “They’re answering questions to the best of their ability and really trying to help people understand.”

Topics have ranged from what to do about the new Pier before Rogers Partners and ASD Architects were chosen to oversee a new design to what restaurants may work best on that site all the way on up to what to build on the 85-acre Tropicana Field site.

The Trop was the group’s latest topic.

“My opinion is, why lose 6,000 jobs if you don’t have to,” Bean said of the latest developments in the Rays stadium saga.

St. Pete City Council approved a deal between the city and the Major League Baseball team that allows them to look for alternative stadium sites outside of St. Pete in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties. The deal means St. Pete can finally start looking into how to develop the massive stadium site, with or without a stadium, knowing that even if there’s a new stadium, it’s not going to require acres and acres of parking like currently exist.

Bean hopes the Rays will stay put, but is looking forward to moving forward with development discussions. And that’s where SmartBurg is a great tool for other engaged citizens.

People were able to hear directly from staff the details of the approved Rays deal. They learned the team is entitled to half of the development revenues if they stay, but none if they leave. They got to talk about previous proposals for the site that included a vast array of plans including retail space, residential, a block for the tech industry all the while still having room for a stadium if necessary.

The meetings are held on the second Wednesday of every month at the Station House on First Avenue South in downtown. The restaurant lets Bean use the space for free. People who attend can order drinks or food from servers. A coffee and tea bar is also set up in the upstairs area. The meetings run from 6 p.m. until 8:00.

But if the group continues to grow it will outpace its current layout. Bean has it set up as a sort of roundtable format in which all can engage in conversation with whatever staff is available for questions.

But Bean said no matter how big it gets, and he hopes it gets bigger, he’ll find a way to make it work.

That could mean inviting multiple staff members to discuss various topics. Then participants could rotate from table to table or even room to room to break the crowd into smaller settings.

“I want to get people engaged and actively helping move St. Pete forward in an intelligent way,” Bean said after joking the endeavor has kept him so busy he barely has time for his own work these days.

More information about SmartBurg as well as updates on meetings are on the group’s Facebook page. It currently has 76 “likes.”

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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