Water Street Tampa's Sparkman Wharf emerges as a national tech hub

More than 75 years ago, Tampa’s Channel District started out as a maritime-related enclave – an industrial, commercial area built to serve the Port of Tampa. It was for private shipping and was home to ship workers, shipping companies, bonded warehouses and dock and port workers loading and unloading cargo ships. 

The area is now known for startups instead of shipyards.

In August 2021, Forbes listed Tampa, more specifically the Sparkman Wharf-Water Street Tampa area in the Channel District, as one of the United States' fastest-growing tech districts. 

Among the tech companies getting wired into the Sparkman Wharf area are national cybersecurity firm Rapid7; CoinFlip, a financial services provider powered by cryptocurrency; and Embarc Collective, one of Florida's fastest-growing startup hubs, supporting nearly 150 tech and tech-enabled startups. 

Embarc Collective is known as the state’s “fastest-growing startup hub” and its members have raised more than $173.8 million in venture capital since 2019.

Transformation and Reinvention

Strategic Property Partners (SPP), a partnership of Tampa Bay Lighting owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment, is transforming 56 acres along Tampa’s waterfront into the mixed-use Water Street Tampa development, a walkable new urban community connecting homes, offices, shops and hotels along the waterfront. 
The nearly-completed first phase of development includes 4.2 million square feet, with two office buildings, three hotels, three apartment buildings and 160,000 square feet of retail space.

That is in addition to the 245,000 square feet of Sparkman Wharf retail and office space in the first building completed as part of Phase 1 development. In 2021, a second building, the trophy office tower Thousand & One, was constructed. Sparkman Wharf is now about 90 percent leased, including Rapid7, and more than 70 percent of Thousand & One has been leased. 

It is a massive transformation and reinvention from a few decades ago.

By the 1970s and early 1980s, the Channel District near downtown was in decline as buildings decayed and property values dropped. But by the mid-1980s, the area along what was Water Street was pegged for redevelopment, By 2001, it was redeveloped into the shopping, eating and entertainment district known as Channelside Bay Plaza. 

In 2018, as SPP began to develop Water Street Tampa, the Channelside Bay Plaza area was named Sparkman Wharf after Stephen Sparkman, who, in 1905, was the first member of Congress from what was then considered "South Florida" to bring in federal money to dredge channels from Port Tampa to Channelside, allowing for larger ships in what’s known today as the Garrison Seaport.

Besides nights out of socializing, eating, playing and partying in a thriving restaurant and nightlife district, Sparkman Wharf-Water Street Tampa is on its way to becoming a major Tampa tech hub – a community promoting innovation for technology-based companies. 
A Tech migration to Tampa

In May, Rapid7, with home offices in Boston, signed a lease for 42,000 square feet of offices at Sparkman Wharf in Water Street Tampa to join the growing Tampa tech scene. 

Dave Bevirt, executive vice president of corporate leasing and strategy for SPP, says when SPP heard a private security office from Boston was considering Tampa, talks with Rapid7 and other companies commenced about a year and a half ago. 

“We’re seeing that from many technology companies all over the U.S. are now starting to dip their feet in the water of Tampa to really understand what the opportunity is for them long-term either to move an actual headquarters relocation or to open and expand in Tampa,” he says. “And that’s exactly what Rapid7 is doing.” 

As for the burgeoning tech hub in Tampa, Bevirt says when he arrived in the area four years ago, the migration of tech-focused companies into the area was just beginning. He says there have been a “number of factors” which have contributed to the influx of these companies and corporations moving into what is becoming the “Embarc Collective Community” – namely a solid foundation for skilled employees.

 “You have to have a robust talent pipeline in order to recruit the companies to come here. I call it the ‘chicken and the egg,’” says Bevirt, a St. Louis native and Purdue University graduate who moved from Washington, D.C. to Tampa to work for SPP. “If you don’t have the talent, the companies aren’t coming and if you don’t have companies, the talent’s not coming. You can’t one have without the other.”

Among the factors that drive business into Sparkman Wharf-Embarc Collective-Water Street Tampa are initiatives that focus on supporting the tech sector at its core. That includes a strong area educational system, with the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida providing talent. The influx of tech companies has also helped turned the tide on Tampa’s long-standing talent drain, where college graduates from the Bay area would move away to other cities to launch their careers.

“A high percentage of graduates are staying in Tampa to work in the tech industry because they recognize the opportunity to live, work and play in a great environment,” says Bevirt.

As the tech market continues to expand, Bevirt says a “herd mentality” begins to form and the tech market begins to file in. He says the Tampa Bay area is becoming a real growth area for technology and is ninth in the U.S. for tech talent growth over the last five years.

With no state income tax, a low local corporate tax rate, quality of life and “friendly people,” Bevirt says there’s an upward trajectory for tech growth.

“If you look at it fundamentally, you have a big cybersecurity network here," adds Bevirt. "I think that has really brought the attention of other cybersecurity companies worldwide…because they recognize this is fertile ground for hiring the talent that they need. There’s opportunity here in Tampa. There’s so much opportunity and not just for technology.” 

The draw of a vibrant urban area

SPP is developing Water Street Tampa on 56 acres the company owns along the waterfront. The project began vertical construction in 2018 with a goal to revitalize downtown Tampa into an urban, mixed-use waterfront district with nine million square feet of new commercial, residential, hospitality, cultural, entertainment, educational and retail uses -- over $3.5 billion in private investment from SPP.

And those types of investments are partly what attracted Rapid7 to the new tech hub, with its location there announced in May. 

Jamie Kinch has been vice president of real estate and workplace experience at Rapid7 since 2017. Based in Boston, Rapid7 has about 2,500 employees worldwide with nine U.S. offices and 14 more spread across Europe, Asia, the Pacific and Australia. 

Kinch, who originally hails from just outside of London, England, says Rapid7 began to look to expand in the U.S. in 2021 and chose Tampa that fall. He says the Water Street area is conducive to a work-home life balance that can sometimes be challenging in cities like Boston.

“The reason we ended up there is because you think how people will work in the future and the place the office has in the world of work…we want to be in locations where there’s great talent and the friction of being together in a city is not high,” he says. 

As for choosing Sparkman Wharf-Water Street Tampa to set up shop, Kinch says the vibrancy of downtown Tampa is also a factor. 

“If we’re going to bring people together in our offices, we want it to be in really vibrant locations where there’s great balance between work environment and the amenities outside our doorstep,” he says. “That Water Street development really spoke to us, and we felt like it’s very in line with the culture of our business.”

Additionally, Kinch says he and Rapid7 administration believe the company will help foster the tech hub with the goal of actively recruiting a blend of entry-level roles and emerging talent. He says there will be a “great opportunity” to hire that skill set in the community. 

“We’re really thinking about it as an opportunity to help build a hub by hiring IT people, engineers, salespeople. That just gives us a way to get a lot of talent in the Tampa community,” Kinch states.

As for the future of the Sparkman Wharf-Water Street Tampa tech hub, Kinch feels Tampa is a “second-tier city” that hasn’t yet been fully tapped for its tech-fostering possibilities. He says Rapid7 is always looking for locales to attract new, skilled employees.

“I think the landscape has changed as companies begin to think about where they can land and seek new talent," Kinch adds. "I think Tampa has a lot of good, upcoming talent and the more tech that comes into Tampa, the better it is for all of us."

Rapid7 plans to hire more than 100 positions with a focus on data and software engineering, business development, customer support, IT for its Sparkman Wharf office, which is expected to open late this year.

According to the CIO.com website for enterprise chief information officers and business technology executives, Tampa ranks as the seventh fastest-growing tech hub in the U.S. The city makes up 25 percent of Florida’s tech jobs, with more than 50 IT and software companies in Tampa and 2,000 jobs expected to be added through 2022. Those companies include Amazon, Infosys, IBM, Wipro, Apple, Oracle, Microsoft, Capgemini, Uber, Dell, Google and Salesforce. CIO.com reports the average tech salary in Tampa was $97,098 per year in 2021 -- a 10.6 percent increase from 2020.

In addition, the Tampa Bay Tech organization was organized more than 21 years ago to connect the technology community in Tampa. Tampa is also home to Embarc Collective, billed as the state’s “fastest-growing startup hub.” 

The growing tech hub 

Along with Rapid7, other tech-centric companies who have found a docking station at Water Street Tampa are ReliaQuest, Synovus, RSM, Suffolk Construction, Boasso Global, Sila Realty Trust and CoinFlip.

CoinFlip, a Chicago-based financial services provider driven by cryptocurrency, announced in May it was opening in Tampa, its second location in the U.S. and first major corporate expansion. One of the two offices will be in Water Street Tampa, an almost 8,000-square-foot space slated to open this summer. 

CoinFlip CEO and founder Ben Weiss, says the Sparkman Wharf offices should create at least 40 new jobs in the first year. CoinFlip will open a “Crypto Innovation & Experience Center” in the tech hub providing community education about cryptocurrency and giving information about the purchase of digital currencies via the company's Bitcoin ATMs and Trade Desk, according to the company. 

Weiss, 27, started CoinFlip in 2015 with three co-founders: Daniel Polotsky, Kris Dayrit and Alan Gurevich. From the company’s Chicago headquarters, Weiss says the company’s CTO lives in the Tampa Bay area and will lead the Tampa Water Street district office after opening as an engineering hub this summer with 40-plus employees. 

As for locating at Sparkman Wharf-Water Street, Weiss says with the company’s rapid growth, expansion became necessary sooner rather than later. CoinFlip was named the fastest-growing company in Chicago by Crain’s Chicago Business with a five-year growth rate of 1.7 million percent and revenue of $100 million in 2021. Additionally, the company was No. 60 on the Inc. 5000, the highest-ranking crypto company on that list.

“We were growing and growing rapidly and we knew we’d need an expansion,” Weiss says. “I actually didn’t think it would be Tampa, but as we were looking all over the U.S., Tampa kept coming up. I think employees want to work in areas where they can live and play and having have that holistic development was a big factor in our decision.” 

As for the developing Tampa tech hub, Weiss feels CoinFlip will help foster its development. He says when top talent and “cutting-edge” companies move in, others follow in what he calls a “positive feedback loop” and people who move to Tampa to work tend to stay longer than in other big cities.

“But half the battle is getting the word out,” he adds. “It’s like there’s an amazing guitar player but he just plays in his garage and never goes out in public; he goes nowhere. You have to tell the story of what’s going on to get the word out.”

In addition to bringing 9 million square feet of new commercial, residential, entertainment and educational space to downtown Tampa, Sparkman Wharf has 180,000 square feet of loft-style office space and 65,000 square feet of ground-level retail. There is also a park, a “dining garden” featuring 10 restaurants utilizing refurbished shipping containers and a one-acre recreation lawn for community events. 

All of the components for a viable, noted tech collective are coming together at Sparkman Wharf-Water Street Tampa, says Lakshmi Shenoy, Embarc Collective CEO. 

In 2018, Shenoy moved to Tampa from Chicago to help found Embarc Collective, which assists in growing startup hub areas and providing working space and support to companies. The company helps to create a physical central landing zone for tech start-ups and has a 32,000 square-foot hub in downtown Tampa, helping to expose the city to new tech ideas and technologies being built locally and internationally. 

Embarc Collective has 20 members on its team serving more than 125 tech start-ups. mostly in the Tampa Bay area but with members across Florida. Embarc Collective has been billed as the state’s “fastest-growing startup hub.” Since 2019, Embarc Collective’s member companies have added a total of 259 team members and raised a total of nearly $174 million in venture capital.

Shenoy says one of the highest sources of new job creation in the U.S. comes from tech start-ups and Embarc Collective has assisted Tampa-area tech start-ups, which have grown five times in a year. 

“If you’re building a company in 2022, likely there’s going to be a really large technology component, whatever type of business you’re building,” Shenoy says. “So, this focus on technology start-ups is really great in terms of creating new opportunities for residents…to join high growth companies that are creating amazing, high-wage jobs for the local community.”

Some of Embarc Collective’s clients are SiteZeus, TrustLayer, Pocket Network Tampa, BlockSpaces, which Shenoy calls “really exciting high-growth companies in different sectors.” 

Overall, Weiss says he and other companies are excited about the future business possibilities in the burgeoning Sparkman Wharf-Water Street Tampa tech hub.

“You have to tell the story of what’s going on here, get the word out or else how are people going to find out?” he says. “I think that’s rapidly happening here.”

For more information go to Rapid7, CoinFlip, Embarc Collective, Sparkman Wharf
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Read more articles by Paul Catala.

Paul Catala is a freelance writer whose work has been published across Florida, the U.S., and internationally. He has more than 30 years of experience working at the Charlotte Sun-Herald, the Tampa Tribune, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Provo (Utah) Daily-Herald, The (Lakeland) Ledger, and the Associated Press. He has a degree in broadcast telecommunication from the University of Florida and did post-graduate study in journalism at the University of South Carolina. Now living in Lakeland, Paul is an accomplished musician, playing keyboard and piano both solo and with bands around the Tampa Bay Area.