Southside public workshop identifies stigma problem with poor neighborhoods

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St. Pete officials are homing in on plans to revitalize parts of South St. Pete, home to some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods like Midtown and Child’s Park. During the fifth in a series of six public meetings, residents and members of a committee convened Monday night to study ways to improve neighborhoods between Fourth and 49th Street and First Avenue North to 30th Avenue South.

St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman was on hand with his guide dog pup-in-training to offer his support for the process, saying that struggling neighborhoods are holding the city back and that the entire area needs to join forces to help neighbors most in need.

“If we don’t have good quality housing that’s affordable, that’s safe, if we don’t have strong neighborhoods, we can’t be that community of opportunity,” Kriseman said. “If we don’t have opportunities to get good paying, living wage jobs, we can’t be that community of opportunity – if we don’t feel safe in our homes, in our businesses, we can’t be that.”

Breakout groups with about 10 people each gathered in each corner of the room to discuss key areas of development. Those areas for improvement are housing and neighborhood revitalization, economic development, public safety and community opportunity and empowerment. People rotated through the groups writing down what they considered top needs and possible solutions and then, at the end, rated each area by importance.

One of the most weighted issues was the negative perceptions of South St. Pete. The high-crime stigma surrounding the Southside suggests to people who don’t live there that it’s a dangerous neighborhood to be avoided.

“[We have to work on] getting the relationships back between the officers and the community through community policing and ‘park, walk, talk’ and gun buy back programs and perhaps neighborhood cleanups,” Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams said.

Another key opportunity for improvement is lowering both unemployment and under-employment rates. The group touted the Greenlight Pinellas Plan as a possible way to get more Southside residents to not just part-time, minimum wage jobs, but quality jobs.

“Greenlight Pinellas is about connecting our residents with the jobs they need to make a living,” said head of the Center for Community and Economic Justice CEO Dr. Yvonne Scruggs Leftwich.

The Greenlight Pinellas Plan would increase funding for the county’s public transportation to increase bus service and build a passenger rail line connecting North and South County. The rail line wouldn’t extend to South St. Pete, but other ancillary services would serve neighborhoods like Midtown by feeding into the downtown St. Pete connection. From there, residents would have access to any number of jobs in the bustling Carillon business district like HSN or Raymond James.

Also discussed were ways to improve housing for the homeless, enforce codes on properties with absentee homeowners and improve daycare centers in hopes of transitioning some to pre-K programs.

Whatever plans come out of the six-meeting series will be tentatively heard by city council sometime in March. Planners expect a proposal to go before Pinellas County Commission sometime around April with authority to establish a Tax Incremental Fund by late spring. The process includes approval from not just St. Pete City Council and the Pinellas County Commission, but also teams of advisory committees.

The plans will add to several already in place including the 2020 plan. The goal of that is to increase employment in South St. Pete by 5,000 jobs and reduce poverty by 30 percent. The plan focuses most on young men and fathers, especially those with felony records. According to the 2020 plan presentation, numerous studies show “the absence of fathers diminishes life in every way, from pre-mature sex to increased poverty, school failure and delinquency.”

Attendees at the public workshops are also welcome to present possible funding structures to implement plans. The final meeting will be Dec. 8 at 6 p.m. at the Manhattan Casino Ballroom. Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP to Rick Smith at rick.smith@stpete.org or 727-893-7106.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.