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St. Petersburg’s appeal for Midtown investment faces pushback from residents

Tropicana Field replaced the Gas Plant community surrounding United Gas Co. plant at 1201 Third Ave. S. [AL SATTERWHITE | Times files, 1966]
ST. PETERSBURG — Downtown is booming. But for some areas south of Central Avenue, economic progress is slow.

The Midtown area has the largest concentration of poverty in Pinellas County. It hasn’t seen sustainable economic growth in more than 30 years, according to Rick Smith, St. Petersburg’s community redevelopment coordinator.

Maria Scruggs, the president of the local chapter of NAACP who made a run for the City Council District 6 seat last fall and a Midtown resident, said she feels that the city acts as if only downtown qualifies as St. Petersburg.

City Council Member Gina Driscoll said at a recent meeting that it will take a long time to see economic improvements.

“Downtown didn’t boom over night,” Driscoll said. “It’s a long process, but it’s one that I feel is moving in the right direction.”

City officials are working on a solution with a 30 year plan to stimulate private investment in the Community Redevelopment Area in south St. Petersburg, which they launched with the county in 2015. They have said that previous attempts to aesthetically improve the area in order to attract investors failed. Instead, they’re approaching it by addressing education and workforce development, housing and neighborhoods, and business development and job creation.

But their solution seems to diverge from what residents see as their community’s biggest needs.

In 2017, almost one in four residents of the area made less than a $15,000 average household income, according to the CRA community profile. That’s about $3,000 below the federal poverty level just for one person. In 2017, the average household size in the area had roughly three people.

The roughly 7.4-square mile CRA district includes 33,600 people living in most of Midtown, more than 20 neighborhood and business associations, two Florida Main Street Districts and Greater Childs Park. It’s the largest tax increment financing district in the county.

But some south side residents, such as Jabaar Edmond, vice-president of the Childs Park neighborhood association, wonder why the CRA district extends to Second Avenue Nand a portion of Fifth Avenue N if downtown is already booming.

“It’s no coincidence to me,” Edmond said. “There needs to be more of an intentional focus to put that money in the poor neighborhoods of the south side.”

Smith said the boundaries exist to combine previous plans to develop Midtown and Childs Park.

Edmond said his community has never had the chance to grow.

“The south side of St. Pete is a different world,” Edmond said. “(It) did not become impoverished on its own.”

The Gas Plant area, formerly known as Cooper’s Quarters, centered on the city’s natural gas supply and included historically African-American neighborhoods and businesses from roughly First to Fifth Avenues S and M.L. King Jr. and 16th Streets. It remains predominantly black. In the early 1980s, it was demolished and replaced by Tropicana Field. And while many see the Trop site as a kickstart for downtown’s economic growth, many residents of the south side said they’ve witnessed predominantly black residents and business owners displaced and vulnerable to homelessness because of it.

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Edmond said the city has the opportunity with the CRA plan to fix this. But the current map doesn’t include Tropicana Field. Smith said this is because it was already included in the Intown redevelopment area from 1982.

But Edmond didn’t see it that way.

“They’re gerrymandering the biggest economic boost for the south side,” Edmond said. “We still have time to correct it. The Rays are still there.”

At a public meeting in June, at least 80 people packed in to the Enoch Davis Center auditorium and passed the microphone for nearly an hour and a half regarding their ideas on how to fix the community’s economic problems.

In both fiscal years 2016 and 2017, only two percent of more than $1.5 million total TIF spending from the CRA was used for affordable housing in the district, according to the CRA presentation . But many community members said that’s their biggest need.

“The only transformation happening is black people are moving away to Pinellas Park and up to Tarpon Springs,” Edmond said. “They can’t afford it here anymore.”

Jesse Nevel, who ran for mayor in the fall as an International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement candidate, spoke at the meeting as vice-chair of the Communities United for Reparations & Economic Development.

“All 86 acres should go for affordable housing and economic development as reparations to the black community,” Nevel, who is white, said during the meeting.

Scruggs referred to the city’s approach toward economic development as “plantation politics.”

“They’re not interested in addressing the root causes of how the black community ended up here,” she said. “They just want to put their name on something and say, ‘We did this for the poor black people’ that doesn’t actually do anything.”

Driscoll said she thinks residents in the CRA district trust the city with the plan for redevelopment. But both Scruggs and Edmond didn’t attend the summit meeting in June because of their personal distrust, despite their attempts to communicate with the City Council and the CRA citizen advisory committee, they said. Many residents at the meeting referenced their fellow community members that weren’t present because they couldn’t take off work at its 4:30 p.m. start time or didn’t have transportation to get there.

“The sun must shine on everyone,” resident Faye Watson said. “Because if it doesn’t, the legacy of this city won’t be pretty.”

Smith said the city continues to seek public engagement in upcoming meetings, such as for its citizen advisory committee on Aug. 7.

“The public needs to stay engaged with the city to help make its desires known,” Smith said.

“I hope (Driscoll) and others will step up and be the champion we need,” Edmond said.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Hannah Denham at Follow @hannah_denham1.