With Clearwater Beach consistently rated one of America’s top beaches — visitors and residents don’t often immediately identify the city as a tech haven. It’s a long way from Seattle and Silicon Valley, after all.
What many people don’t realize is that Clearwater is home to two strong Tech Districts with more than 50 IT/software companies between the two areas that have created about 2,100 jobs.
“This is probably the city’s best-kept secret — that there are so many of these companies,” says Stu Sjouwerman, CEO of KnowBe4, an IT security company based downtown.
There are dozens of fast-growing tech companies, many garnering national attention, that call the city home. Some set up shop in downtown Clearwater, while others cluster along Park Place Boulevard between Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Drew Street. Both areas are thriving, says Denise Sanderson, the city’s Economic Development & Housing director. The list of companies is impressive, she adds.
KnowBe4, an Inc. 500 company that provides cyber security training for businesses, saw a 255 percent increase in sales last year and made #70 in the Fastest Growing Company in North America category on Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500 for 2017. The company’s ranks have exploded in recent years and it currently employs 420, a number Sjouwerman expects to hit 600 by the end of the year.
AutoLoop, which provides automotive marketing software solutions, is located in the same building as KnowBe4. “They’re also growing like crazy,” Sjouwerman says. Since CEO and entrepreneur Steve Anderson created the company, it’s grown to 400 employees and serves more than 2,000 clients.
Also downtown, is Stratus Video, which provides video translation services for more than 175 health systems and 1,300 hospitals and clinics. For five consecutive years, it has made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies, last year coming in at #201.
Meanwhile, VeriFone, one of the city’s largest IT companies, is located in the Park Place cluster. A leader in payment technology, the company operates in 150 countries, employs nearly 6,000 people globally and processes $7.6 billion in transactions annually.
“Clearwater has the most fast-growing companies in Florida,” Sjouwerman says. It wouldn’t be possible without the support of the city, he adds. “The city has designated downtown as a so-called high tech overlay. That means that the city promotes high tech downtown and helps these companies do build-outs, and it just helps the existing players, as well.”
The city’s tech industry is booming at a time when all eyes are on rejuvenating downtown Clearwater. The two need to go hand-in-hand says Steve Allen, CEO/founder of DocuPhase and the Technical Arts Facility for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (now Florida Business Incubator.)
As these tech companies grow, they will need to attract more talented high-skilled employees. For this to happen, Clearwater needs to invest in revitalizing its downtown urban core and transform it into a place where these employees want to live.
“You’re starting to see that happen,” Allen says. “To get these workers to want to come to Clearwater, we need more vibrancy that makes it more attractive.”
Already, downtown is changing, he adds, with more housing options, like The Nolen’s upscale urban apartments, and restaurants, like Clear Sky on Cleveland, opening.
“What a great addition to the area,” he says, referring to Clear Sky. “We needed something like that. The more they bring in, the more successful the area will be. As soon as they get off work, people want to go do something.”
The city will see even more activity downtown as Imagine Clearwater, a plan to reactivate Clearwater’s downtown waterfront and bluff while spurring economic development, moves forward, he says.
Allen adds, “Clearwater is still a little bit of a blank slate. But it’s been very difficult to get Clearwater to move.”
Nearby cities Tampa in Hillsborough County and St. Petersburg in south Pinellas County, have already experienced their own renaissances, including tech booms, in recent years. That momentum has influenced the growth of Clearwater’s tech districts, and the city needs to be ready to accommodate it, Allen says.
“We need to build off that momentum. The smaller firms that were located here are turning into bigger ones. That kind of demand keeps us working hard and lobbying for talent.”
Just recently, he recruited a handful of employees from Austin, TX.
“That’s good for us to recruit from places like Austin. Usually it’s the reverse,” he says. “But we need to have something to offer them.”
Sanderson says city staff recognizes that the technology industry has challenges attracting employees. “So by having a vibrant downtown — a walkable, vibrant, active downtown — the ability to attract talented employees to the area improves.”
Housing will continue to be an area of focus, she says, and the city wants to encourage more market rate housing options downtown. “We want a variety of housing to support the professional workforce,” she says. “That helps create vibrancy, activity.”
While the city wants to draw tourists and other visitors to restaurants, retailers and events in the area, what’s most important is establishing “a downtown that attracts residents back to the urban core,” she says.
“I think we’re on the verge of creating an environment where people want to live, work, shop and play downtown,” she adds. … ”With so many things going on — the city’s commitment to Imagine Clearwater, the public’s commitment to Imagine Clearwater and the fresh new ideas of Amanda Thompson, [the new Community Redevelopment Agency] director, I would say it’s a really good time to consider downtown Clearwater. There’s space available at competitive rates. It’s a really good time to consider being part of what I’d say is a renaissance down here.”
To suggest additional story ideas, email 83 Degrees.
To subscribe to our free weekly e-magazine, follow this link.