Not Your Average Speakers: Community Building In Tampa Bay

Brian Seel relocated to Tampa from Atlanta in the spring of 2009 after earning a masters degree at Georgia Tech and quickly realized the Tampa Bay region was a "blank slate" for developing your passions.

"Compared to some cities, there are less ingrained institutions in Tampa Bay," says Seel of Emerge Tampa Bay. "If you want to get involved in something, you just have to show up."

And show up readers did at 83 Degrees Media's third "Not Your Average Speakers" series event when we shifted the focus to community building -- how to build connections and nurture existing relationships in ways that contribute to the overall betterment of neighborhoods, cities and the Tampa Bay region.

Young professionals, artists, entrepreneurs, students, public officials and business owners filled The Roosevelt 2.0 Wednesday evening, Feb. 22, in Ybor City to participate in a community conversation about engaging more residents to create the synergy necessary for visionary change in transportation, art, food, technology, business and politics.

Panelists included Seel, Bob Devin Jones of [email protected], Heather Kenyon of the Tampa Bay Tech Forum, Michael Blasco of Tasting Tampa and Reuben Pressman of Swings Tampa Bay and "I'm Staying.''

Better Together

Moderator Megan Voeller kicked off the conversation with a reminder about the conclusions of political scientist and author Robert D. Putnam in his book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse And Revival of American Community." Putnam writes that America is suffering from a loss of social capital -- the very fabric of our connections with each other.

While this loss has increased over the years with the proliferation of social media, there's a growing backlash from individuals intent on preserving human interaction as a fundamental aspect of community building.

It's what inspired panelist and 23-year-old St. Pete champion Reuben Pressman to launch Swings Tampa Bay last year with buddy and entrepreneurial artist Hunter Payne. Swings Tampa Bay is a public art project designed to hang swings in places that encourage interaction and thus exude happiness.

"You're interacting on a level everyone can experience," Pressman says.

Interaction is one vital key to building community, the panelists agreed.

It's part of the reason eateries Burger Culture, The Killer Samich Truck and Sinful Pleasure Dessert Co. have combined forces with other mobile kitchens in the Tampa Bay region to create Food Truck Square, a daily gathering at 1901 Platt Street next to Monstah Lobstah.

Tasting Tampa blogger Blasco says the food truck craze grew into something the larger community desired without even knowing it.

"People want to get out of the house," he says. "There is no demographic, just people with one thing in common -- a passion for good food."

But the key to building a stronger community, from an economic standpoint, doesn't require a mass marketing campaign to highlight the region's assets, Blasco says. The answer, he suggests, is as simple as asking a friend, 'Hey, what are your plans this weekend?'

"Engage people face-to-face," he urges. Take your friends to the latest exhibit at the Dali Museum. Go browsing for treasures at the Old Tampa Book Company. Check out the latest records in stock at Microgroove and grab some lunch at the Food Truck Square. You just might inspire them to join a community they didn't even know existed right here in Tampa Bay.

Bonding Shared Passions

It should also come as no surprise that technology and art, like food, are great community building bonders.

Kenyon says she experiences her love of the region daily through her work as president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. TBTF hosts more than 80 events a year in its effort to support technology entrepreneurship. Her purpose is clear -- to make the Tampa Bay region a hub of innovation and to find jobs for talented young tech grads.

"Graduates leave because they think there are no jobs, but the tech industry has a need for good people."

Last August Bloomberg Business Week and named Tampa the No. 8 city in the country with growth in tech jobs.

Shaking Tampa Bay's stigma of being an employment wasteland for recent college grads isn't easy, but progress is underway.

Movements like Pressman and Payne's "I'm Staying" campaign -- a pledge to stay in St. Pete -- is a call for other forward-thinking individuals to plant their roots in the Burg.

Panelist Bob Devin Jones of [email protected] commended the duo for their dedication to St. Pete, a city he's had a love affair with for 14 years since relocating from Los Angeles.

Building a community around the arts has been especially effective for [email protected] since its debut in 2004. By hosting a wide range of services to the arts community -- performance venue, art gallery, social roundtable -- it acts as an incubator of local talent and a place for creative minds to get together.

"Collaboration is the new black," Jones says. "All it takes is a phone call."

Audience Reactions

Or start it yourself as an entrepreneur as did small business owner Olga Bof, who Pressman applauded for introducing him to the Keep St. Pete Local movement. It's a pledge to spend your dollars at independent businesses, which strengthens the local economy and fosters a stronger sense of community.

"In St. Pete it's become easy to form a community if you build it around your passions," Bof says. Her main focus involves starting the children's bookshop Cheeky Monkey's Books & Toys. Through her bookshop, she sees the opportunity to do storytime at the Saturday Morning Market in downtown St. Pete, where she builds connections with the local food movement. The ability to constantly redefine what your community is has made Bof fall in love with her city, where she's lived for the last four years.

"I absolutely adore St. Pete," she gushes. "I'd never found home till I got there."

Newly established entrepreneur Morgan Abdallah formed her passion around upcycling -- taking something like vintage playing cards and repurposing them as business cards. It's a mixture of arts and green living that she's had a passion for all her life.

"Merging them together is, far as I can tell, building a community," she says.

Abdallah took advantage of The Roosevelt 2.0's role as a business incubator and started Tampa Upcycle inside the venue three weeks ago. Sitting on the sidewalk of 15th Street in Ybor reminds her of living in upstate New York. She's finally planted her roots in Tampa, but admits there's room for improvement.

Abdallah asked for the panel's thoughts on why a separation between Tampa and St. Petersburg's communities was so palpable.

"There's envy with the amount of creative opportunities available in St. Pete," she says. "If I didn't have the opportunity to open up at The Roosevelt (in Tampa), most likely I would've gone to Central Avenue (in St. Pete)."

Bridging the gap between the two and building one Tampa Bay community may come in time, but Pressman says he believes the key to building a successful community is developing your passions in the city you live first, then spreading what you've learned to other surrounding areas.

"The economic downturn has highlighted that we sink or swim together," Seel says. "Unless we're all fighting for [our cities] we'll all sink together."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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