The City of Clearwater has launched a new initiative to serve as a catalyst for economic development and business innovation in North Pinellas County.
The Clearwater Business SPARK brings together a network of resources targeting the growth of small businesses and entrepreneurs.
“It’s all about supporting our small business and entrepreneurial community,” says Audra Aja, who is with the City of Clearwater Economic Development and Housing Department and program coordinator for Clearwater Business SPARK.
Rather than being an acronym, SPARK is simply meant to “embody the thought of sparking innovation through business success, growth and entrepreneurship,” says Aja.
Partners in SPARK include the city of Clearwater’s Economic Development and Housing Department, Clearwater Public Library, Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, Florida Small Business Development Center of Pinellas County and Technical Arts Facility for Innovation and Entrepreneurship or TAFFIE.
“The real driver for launching SPARK was a study that identified the need to work together from a number of different angles to promote Clearwater as a viable area for business,” says Elaine Mann, executive director of TAFFIE.
An Urban Land Institute study undertaken by the city identified 23 software and information technology companies located in the downtown area. And those companies had over 800 employees.
That was a surprise to a lot of people.
“People, even those who live here, tend to think of the beaches and tourism when they think of Clearwater, but we have a quite a number of large and small businesses and technology companies,” says Mann.
The study spurred the city to pursue a number of initiatives, including identifying the downtown Clearwater Redevelopment Area as a technology district and putting together a technology council focused on helping brand and market the downtown area as a tech hub.
Putting together SPARK was the next step in the process.
“We realized that we have a lot of great resources already here in Clearwater, but we did not have a cohesive, formal way of working together,” says Aja.
To determine the best direction to take, she says the group visited the St. Petersburg Greenhouse, the Tampa Bay WaVE in Tampa, and the HuB in Sarasota – in total about nine different venues that support innovation and entrepreneurs.
“We have spent about a year-and-a-half solidifying our programs and figuring out how to best deliver them to the community,” said Aja.
In a news release announcing SPARK, Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos says, “The creation of Clearwater Business SPARK begins a relationship between the city and its local partners that will ignite entrepreneurship and business development in greater Clearwater and enhance the city’s future and its business community.”
SPARK partner Steve Allen is president and CEO of DocuPhase/iDatix, a Clearwater-based software technology company.
Allen is also the founder of TAFFIE, which is located in the iDatix corporate headquarters and serves as an incubator, accelerator and co-working space for local business startups.
TAFFIE opened in 2013 as a result of Allen’s interest in helping the city brainstorm how to create an ecosystem for attracting the right business talent, says Allen.
“One of the things the group of us talked about was how we did not have an area for these small tech companies to congregate,” says Allen. “I had available space in my own company. And after the Urban Land Institute study pointed out the need for an business incubator and accelerator, I decided to pull the trigger.’’
TAFFIE has evolved as a co-working and incubating space for emerging and small businesses, as well as the “go-to” site for several entrepreneurial programs open to the public, such as the monthly entrepreneurs’ roundtable and a twice monthly Rise and Shine morning education and networking meeting.
In addition to the resources offered by TAFFIE, other SPARK partners, such as the Clearwater Public Library provide free business-related tools like Lynda.com, a professional video learning library on topics ranging from business management to graphic design, and database access to mailing lists and numerous other topics.
One of the library’s coolest new offerings is the “Makerspace,” which gives individuals, inventors and startups access to 3D printers, and other high-tech equipment. All it takes to participate is a Clearwater library card.
In addition, through SPARK, the city is also offering business coaching, site selecting and permitting assistance, access to financing and grant opportunity exploration.
For more information, contact Audra Aja, program coordinator, at 727-443-0217 or [email protected]