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Chamber boss has big plans for change

Published March 14, 2005

Talking to Craig Sher for an hour or two is like being immersed in a crash course on the economic development history, pitfalls and triumphs, and potentially exciting future of St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay area.

What else would you expect from this year's pot-stirring chairman of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, the developer and at-times defender of downtown's popular BayWalk, a local philanthropist and a player behind the revitalization of the economically challenged Midtown neighborhood in the heart of the city's minority community?

Sher, 51, wears many different hats. Clearly, he has a favorite: change agent.

It's not that business is bad. Some parts of St. Petersburg are booming and the economy is good. But things can always be better.

"Twenty-five years ago, I never would have invited my three daughters to come back and live here. Now I would," says Sher, chief executive officer of the Sembler Co. in St. Petersburg. "And they now say, "Good idea!' "

Sembler Co. is a successful developer of shopping centers, malls and retail/entertainment venues. It was founded by Mel Sembler, the former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee who, at 74, is wrapping up his term as U.S. ambassador to Italy.

It's a longstanding joke that Sembler, the devoted Republican, chose to hand over the management reins of his company to Sher, a committed Democrat. Sembler, sons Greg and Brent, and Jeff Fuqua remain partners with Sher in the company.

As the St. Petersburg chamber chairman for 2005, Sher is eager to shake up the business group's Rip Van Winkle reputation. And he has assembled a team of local business leaders to conduct a national search to find a dynamic leader to succeed the retiring chamber CEO, Russ Sloan.

"We are the best-kept secret," a frustrated Sher says of the chamber and its 2,100 members. A new staff CEO at the business group, he says, "can raise the chamber to the next level, just like the city."

With assistance from the city of St. Petersburg, Sher was a key player in the local effort to develop Tangerine Plaza, a shopping center soon to emerge in the economically stressed Midtown neighborhood of St. Petersburg. A brand new Sweetbay supermarket (Kash n' Karry is changing the name of its stores) will anchor the shopping center. Sher says he expects a bank will soon add a branch near Tangerine Plaza.

It's not just another shopping center Sher finds so compelling. It is the promise of revitalization, new local jobs and the hope that Midtown's black business community will gain new confidence from a new local project - and perhaps from other opportunities Sher plans to bring to the area.

Sher is no stranger to race issues or community unrest. As the BayWalk entertainment complex has become St. Petersburg's downtown hot spot, it has attracted its occasional protests, teen scuffles and publicity challenges. Sher, often teamed with Mayor Rick Baker, has addressed these issues in public hearings and private meetings. Over time, the role of real estate developer has morphed into one more complex: community leader.

This month, I sat down with Sher for an interview in his office at the Sembler Co. building on Central Avenue. Conversation ranged from the importance of his Jewish faith and marriage to wife Jan for 29 years to the need to clean up portions of 34th Street and the recent redevelopment of Clearwater Mall. Here are some excerpts:

I take it you are happy with the current economy?

These are good economic times. Clearly, some of that is due to immigration to this state. As long as it is warmer here than up there, we will get our piece of the business.

Other than finding a new chamber CEO, what are some of the group's main goals?

To let others hear more about its successes. We have 2,100 chamber members. We'd like to see 3,000 within the next five years. We're working on a number of initiatives, from financing for the Mahaffey Theater and the Pier and reducing lawsuits due to the American Disabilities Act, to rewriting land development rules and, at the state level, encouraging work force education.

So many grease jobs - I use that phrase affectionately - such as $60,000 mechanic jobs go wanting that we need to train more people.

What's your take on the hierarchy of economic development groups in Florida?

The city has its own economic development team. We have one. About a dozen other cities in Pinellas County have their chambers. The county has one. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has one. Then there's the regional Tampa Bay Partnership and the statewide Enterprise Florida. I'm not sure we all coordinate our efforts. We need to talk more.

That must make it tough to recruit businesses.

Recruiting is hard. Retaining businesses right here is more important. Progress Energy once explored moving to Orlando and the Carillon area of St. Petersburg. Mayor Baker did a good job of keeping that company here. (Progress Energy is building a new state headquarters in downtown St. Petersburg.)

Where is the momentum in the local business community?

It used to be with the banks. I see developers now as the power group.

Many chambers of commerce are under pressure to justify themselves to their members. How will the St. Pete chamber grow to 3,000 members?

Russ Sloan did a terrific job being fiscally responsible, but the chamber may actually be too lean. We want to market what we want to do. We must prove to members that we are worth their time and money. We need to go door to door.

Where does the St. Pete chamber fit in a regional economy? Does it suffer from being too parochial?

It's okay to be parochial on some issues. It's okay to be regional on others like water and transportation. We still think of companies as either from Pinellas or Hillsborough even when their reach is broader.

There's still that dividing line. When I grew up in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Mississippi River between the cities looked bigger than it was.

Why is there so much attention over a shopping center in Midtown?

Because it is so long overdue. There would not be a blip of news about this shopping center if it was elsewhere in the city. I must especially salute Kash n' Karry.

They're building the Sweetbay grocery store?

Yes. That company's president, Shelley Broader, is a very gutsy manager.

The groundbreaking ceremony for Tangerine Plaza last month attracted a couple hundred people.

It was the happiest day of my life. Things will take off from there.

You have another plan in the works?

Four or five investors and I are planning a for-profit group that will invest up to $10,000 apiece in Midtown businesses that show promise. We are partnering with the University of South Florida College of Business. Dean Ron Hill and some of his business students are assessing Midtown businesses and will recommend possible candidates for investment. Our goal is to invest the money in a business. When that business pays it back, we can invest in other businesses. We hope to break even.

How do you answer critics who say new development will drive up local prices?

Some people are complaining about higher taxes. I say, "Thank, God," because higher taxes will drive crime away from the area.

So you're pretty gung ho about the future of St. Petersburg?

The next five years will be remarkable.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at 727 893-8405 or

[Last modified March 12, 2005, 00:40:03]

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