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Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014

Committee tackles tough problem: How to improve South St. Petersburg

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— Local leaders began to lay the groundwork Tuesday for a plan to reinvigorate one of the most impoverished areas of the county.

Meeting at the Historic Manhattan Casino, Mayor Rick Kriseman and vice mayor Kanika Tomalin heard questions and concerns from a committee on potential ways to use local tax dollars for improvements in South St. Petersburg. The aim is to do invest that money to reduce poverty and enhance the lives of those dwelling within the 7.5-square-mile area.

This is the first time the city has asked neighborhood leaders, business people and residents to participate in such an endeavor.

“One of our objectives in the revitalization of south St. Pete is to invest our time and resources in people, not just places,” Kriseman said. “I want South St Pete to be a destination that offers ... as many jobs and housing opportunities, culinary experiences and cultural and entertainment activities that we have downtown, or even out by my area, out in west St. Petersburg.”

Jobs were a focal point of the discussion; the area has a significantly higher unemployment rate than other parts of the city and county. Some in attendance said a key focus of the plan should be on attracting businesses that will hire local residents to fill good jobs.

“It really boils down to creating purchasing power,” said Craig Sher, executive chairman of the Sembler Company, a St. Petersburg real estate development firm.

He said that because there aren’t enough jobs in the immediate area to satisfy the demand for local jobseekers, investment in public transit also needs to be part of the picture.

“We need to figure out how to get people to jobs until the jobs come to the people,” Sher said.

The panel that met Tuesday represented a wide range of interests. Participants included St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce director Chris Steinocher, Northside Hospital CEO Dia Nichols, Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich of the Center for Community and Economic Justice and Andy Hayes of Hayes Cumming Architects. A handful of active community members not on the panel also showed up to weigh in on the plan.

Early childhood education was mentioned more than once, given that a number of schools in south St. Petersburg have received failing grades in recent years.

“The school district cannot address the multitude of deficiencies that our children come to school with,” said Maria Scruggs, who is active with some local nonprofits.

The idea was to take a broader view of the effects of poverty on South St. Petersburg and examine ways to eradicate it using money that can fund a limited range of projects, namely affordable housing and infrastructure.

In addition to unemployment, the area has more crime, high school dropouts and home foreclosures than other parts of the city. The panel has fewer than six months to develop a plan that would address those problems by investing tax dollars raised though two local tax districts.

Much of the plan will pertain to land use.

“We need to prepare for the Rays, who are going to move somewhere else,” Sher said. “We have 83 acres at the Trop. That could be the single most important development in the history of St. Petersburg for decades.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the first of several where city officials will gather input. They hope to develop a plan for investment of the money this year.

After that, the city council and county commission both must approve the plan, which could happen by May of next year.

The next workshop is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 18, at Childs Park Recreation Center, 4301 13th Ave. S.

kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7999

Twitter: @kbradshawTBO

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