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Techies swap schmooze and news

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Tech industry workers - some employed, others not - gather for "shameless networking" Wednesday at Dan Marino's Town Tavern in downtown St. Petersburg.

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 19, 2001


It wasn't a full-fledged "pink slip" party for tech unemployeds. But it came close.

About 100 from Tampa Bay's tech work force converged Wednesday evening at another "shameless networking" gathering held at Dan Marino's Town Tavern at BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg. It was the first such event since the Sept. 11 attacks. And it was the first attempt to pitch the gathering as a pink slip party -- where the recently unemployed could schmooze for work leads -- like those held over the past year in Miami, New York and (where else?) Silicon Valley.

Tech folk who showed up were urged to wear color-coded badges. Red for unemployed (but looking). Blue for employed. And, most important, black for hiring.

"You can't ignore the volume of layoffs," said Fritz Eichelberger, the organizer of these so-called shameless networking socials. "However, I don't want to call it an official pink slip party. Maybe I'll call it the "Pure and Shameless Unofficial' pink slip party."

Eichelberger is proof of just how fluid and treacherous the Tampa Bay tech market is these days. After working earlier this year at Global Crossing, a once-hot telecommunications company that hit the skids, he worked as an Oracle software consultant, then joined a start-up called Abeama that failed to get enough financing. He's landed at Fourthstage Technologies in Tampa, the reincarnation of the former Aperian data center and Web development company.

Perhaps the best testimonial to the local economy is this: Wednesday's event was not overwhelmed by those recently laid off. Of course, that may change next time, if thearea tech climate continues to cool.

Chatter of who's in and who's out at local companies, product pitches, discrete resume swaps and technical gossip about new Microsoft software features routinely overwhelmed the occasional discussion of Osama bin Laden and anthrax threats.

There were brief exceptions. One longstanding area tech entrepreneur, Fazal Fazlin, noted that he still had two sisters in his native Pakistan but was not too concerned about their safety. When the family gets together, though, he said his sisters will visit him in St. Pete. Fazal, after selling Advanced Plasma Systems in the mid-1990s, started a new company called Smart Shadow that sells management software and whose directors are a local Who's Who of tech leaders. (Among them: ex-BrainBuzz executive-turned-angel investor Tom Wallace and Tech Data executive Jeff Howells.)

One young attendee told how his former employer, wireless phone provider Alltel, convinced him to relocate from Twinsburg, Ohio, to help expand the company's Florida operations. But when Alltel began to shrink locally, this programmer had to hit the job market. He's now happy (to be out of Ohio and in Florida) and well employed at Eckerd Corp.'s computer operations in Largo.

What the Marino's crowd may have lacked in numbers (the pre-Sept. 11 gathering was larger and more bullish), it made up for in executives and area tech players, Eichelberger mused. The next gathering is scheduled for Nov. 28 at the Improv in Ybor City. It's a fundraiser for TechVillage Tampa Bay, the fledgling nonprofit incubator at the University of Tampa.

Several performing comedians have wandered incognito at recent tech events to gather timely material for the comedy club event.

If the area's tech economy contracts any more, the jokesters will have their work cut out for them.

Who says the state economy is tanking?

Florida's largest private land owner gave special thanks this week to two factors -- interest rates and cars -- helping it move ahead in tougher times.

St. Joe Co., the former paper company turned real estate developer, says remarkably low mortgage rates continue to fuel plenty of interest in the company's Florida housing projects. Many of St. Joe's upscale developments are clustered along or near the Panhandle coast -- or "Northwest Florida" to use the company's language.

And cars? Now that air travel is so depressed, St. Joe is happy that Panhandle visitors -- the bulk of its customer base -- are mostly drivers. About 90 percent of the nearly 9-million overnight visitors a year who end up between Fort Walton Beach and Panama City Beach arrive by car, St. Joe chief Peter Rummell said.

"We think this will be a plus, at least in the short term," he said.

Other Florida markets, including the Tampa Bay area and especially Miami, are more dependent on air travel.

Rummell suggests St. Joe may even benefit as investors look to real estate opportunities in light of the struggling stock market. St. Joe's quarterly earnings slipped to $16-million from $21.6-million last year. But its stock is up since January and has remained stable, hovering near $25 a share, since the terrorist attacks last month.

Since Sept. 11, Rummell said, most of St. Joe's land and housing sales have been wrapped up with few delays or cancellations by buyers. And no, St. Joe has not found it necessary to lower property prices or offer other incentives to keep luring wary real estate shoppers.

Not all is rosy. Rummell acknowledged the mega-rich market, notably around Naples, is spotty.

"We have seen a significant softness in the very high end market, especially in southwest Florida, for houses in the $5-million to $15-million range," he said. Sellers are either taking the homes off the market until things improve or reducing their price.

"It's a bit surprising to me," Rummell added. "In that price range, they usually are not impacted by anything."

St. Joe, which owns the Arvida real estate brokerage business, did point out the weakest Florida market: Orlando.

Not that the business climate there is bad. But the drop-off in visitors to Orlando's theme parks, Rummell said, appears for now to have stunned the area's real estate market.

Short takes

SQUEEZE OUT ANOTHER KILOWATT: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission just gave a thumbs up to a request for increasing the output by 4.5 percent of one of Progress Energy's nuclear power plants near Raleigh, N.C. No word if Progress Energy, parent of St. Petersburg's Florida Power, has similar plans for its one nuke plant in Florida. Across Tampa Bay, TECO Energy's Tampa Electric utility runs one of eight coal-fired power plants where the U.S. Energy Department plans to spend $51-million to test cleaner-burning technologies. . .

U.S. MEAT GETS NO RESPECT: U.S. beef sales to Japan, the largest overseas buyer of the country's beef, have dropped by about half since a single case of "mad cow" disease was confirmed there last month. Now Russia has banned all meat products and livestock shipped from Florida over fears of -- what else? -- anthrax. U.S. Customs says $30.5-million of poultry were exported to Russia through Tampa last year. . .

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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