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Plan moves forward to transform St. Pete’s Midtown neighborhood

CLEARWATER — More than 100 people lined up Monday morning hoping to get jobs at the new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market opening in St. Petersburg’s Midtown neighborhood, with some arriving four hours early to boost their chances.

The numbers were no surprise in an area of high unemployment and where almost one third of residents live at or below the federal poverty level — roughly twice the rate of the rest of St. Petersburg.

“Folks were there at 6:30 in the rain,” County Commission Chairman Ken Welch said Tuesday. “The need is great.”

A 7.5-square-mile area of Midtown that includes the store is one of five high-poverty areas in Pinellas County identified by a 2012 study that account for almost half of the county’s low-income population.

Now, the area is set to become a test case to see if economic development plan typically used to regenerate downtown areas can also turnaround poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

County and city leaders plan to designate the area as a community redevelopment area, commonly referred to as a CRA. That will include the creation of two tax increment financing, or TIF, areas, where new property taxes are dedicated to neighborhood and do not go into the city or county general funds.

TIF money typically is spent on infrastructure improvements such as street lighting or landscaping. It also goes toward bigger city projects, such as replacing St. Petersburg’s downtown pier.

Money from the Midtown TIF districts, though, will be dedicated to projects that boost job training, create jobs, increase home ownership and new home construction.

“For the first time, we’re going to create a CRA and a TIF and dedicate those resources, long-term, to addressing poverty,” said Welch.

The plan would also include the use of community development block grants and other grants to fund economic development, job training and to make more county health and human services available.

Commissioners agreed to move forward with the plan Tuesday but expressed concerns that Midtown, which would be one of the largest CRAs in Florida, would use up too many of the county’s resources. There was also concern about the long-term impact on county funding if CRAs are also set up in Lealman, High Point, Tarpon Springs and Greenwood — the other high-poverty areas identified in the study.

“What will that look like in 20 to 30 years to Pinellas County’s budget?” said Commissioner Susan Latvala.

Commissioners also said that as the only unincorporated area in the high-poverty list, Lealman should be given priority. “Four have city support, one doesn’t,” said Commissioner Charlie Justice. “Lealman needs to be our focus; it is the one that is in the greatest need.”

The proposed new CRA would cover an area between Fourth Street South and 49th Street South, running from 30th Avenue South to Fifth Avenue North.

The area, which includes the Greater Childs Park, area has a high concentration of boarded-up or vacant homes and almost 550 properties in foreclosure. Property values there declined in value by 56 percent between 2007 and 2012, compared to the city average of 32 percent.

The creation of the CRA would dovetail with the city’s Agenda 2020 plan to reduce poverty in South St. Petersburg by 30 percent by 2020.

Mayor Bill Foster and City Council Chairman Karl Nurse attended the County Commission meeting in Clearwater to urge commissioners to move ahead with the plan for Midtown.

“I can’t overstate how important this is to the city,” Nurse said. “The success or failure of our city is determined by whether we can turn around these neighborhoods.”

Final approval of the Midtown CRA may not happen until next year, said County Administrator Bob LaSala. Meanwhile, St. Petersburg officials are working on developing a full economic redevelopment plan for the area.

“This is a big project,” said Rick Smith, St. Petersburg’s downtown and CRA coordinator. “We will have to take our time on this and make sure we get it right.”

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