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St. Pete Chamber of Commerce adds education to its 2016 legislative priorities

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce is backing the usual suspects this Legislative Session, but this year, the pro-business group is adding a new priority to its list: education.

Following the high-profile “Failure Factories” investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, the chamber decided to get on board with some potential fixes. The exposé uncovered five chronically failing elementary schools in Pinellas County, all in South St. Pete.

Much has been debated about improving the educational outcomes for students attending Lakewood, Melrose, Campbell Park, Fairmount Park and Maximo elementary schools, but few effects have been seen and it’s too soon to quantify what, if any, improvements have been made.

The St. Pete Chamber of Commerce is throwing its weight behind a funding proposal at the state level that would put $50,000 into an impact study using community partners affected by educational outcomes of Pinellas Students to develop both long and short-term goals. The idea is to provide a series of benchmarks officials can analyze each year to determine what’s working and what’s not.

The chamber’s legislative priorities task force headed by C1 Bank executive Barclay Harless wants to use that study to begin looking into establishing a Collective Impact model for the five failing schools.

Under that model, the county would engage with businesses, nonprofits and other community leaders and resources to create a uniformed series of methods, standards and goals rather than having those set by any one particular group. The methodology has seen success in places like Atlanta and Cincinnati where economic situations similar to those in South St. Pete exist.

Harless said the model is a way to approach the problem “holistically.”

The chamber is also supporting a $1.5 million ask for additional funding for the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County that serves children up to 5 years old. The coalition supports early childhood education by providing child care scholarships and VPK for 4-year-olds, among other services.

The additional funding would make early childhood care available to more children on the ELC waiting list.

The chamber is also backing restoration of funding for base student allocation for VPK students to the 2005 levels. That would require an increase of at least $63 per student.

The legislative priority task force is also asking for $250,000 in continued funding for pre-vocational training programs. Those programs, according to the Chamber, result in unemployed workers finding employment in high-demand occupations they would not have otherwise had access to.

Education isn’t the only area on the chamber’s radar this legislative session. The group is backing some typical areas including funding asks for USF St. Pete and local hospitals.

This year they are also asking legislators to approve $500,000 for renovations of six warehouse buildings in the Warehouse Arts District West of 22nd Street South. The buildings include more than 50,000 square feet of space that can be used as art studios, galleries, classrooms and performance spaces. It would also revitalize almost three acres of blighted property and likely boost property values in one of the city’s poorest areas.

Harless also wants to incorporate some form of rent control in the area to keep prices affordable for local artists.

The Chamber is backing a bill sponsored by state Rep. Kathleen Peters and Sen. Jeff Brandes for a comprehensive data analytics sector study.

“It’s one of the best fields that St. Pete can use to attract young people,” Harless said.

The study would look at things like how to attract data analytics companies and how to enhance the area’s quality of life standards.

The $75,000 study would evaluate one of the most difficult business sectors to define and would also identify specific companies, technologies and training programs that would comprise the industry in St. Pete.

Harless said transportation initiatives are also a priority. The chamber had backed a $1 million ask that would have funded bus rapid transit in St. Pete along Central Avenue, but that second year ask is no longer relevant because the Florida Department of Transportation awarded a grant for the project.

A complete list of the chamber’s legislative priorities is on its website.

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 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

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