BY DEVIN RODRIGUEZ, JONAH KING, ROBERT DARE AND SARA AL-MUTAWA, Neighborhood News Bureau
ST PETERSBURG – City officials announced a substantial increase in funding available for the businesses in the Midtown community in 2017 based on an increase in tax revenue and contributions.
For years, shuttered businesses littered south St. Petersburg and the Midtown district. Many of the buildings stand in disuse, including the Merriwether building, a historic landmark built in the 1920s.
To reverse this situation, the city, through the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) program, started offering grants for the restoration and redevelopment of Midtown.
Beyond the numbers and business lingo, the CRA grant is one step in what has been a longtime effort to redevelop what city officials have called a blighted area. The grants are intended to be used to improve the physical conditions of commercial businesses and multi-family housing units to lure more private investments, according to the city’s website.
Last year, grant money went to a variety of businesses. The largest grant award went to renovate the historic Merriwether building. Local entrepreneurs Carolyn and Elihu Brayboy, current owners of the building, want to create a commercial space on the first floor, and a place for families to live in on the second. They estimate the project will cost around $2 million.
Breaking down the CRA
The CRA is a competitive grant program that offers a boost to private investments into commercial businesses and multi-family housing properties in a designated area. The money awarded to those companies comes from a TIF, or a tax increment-financing model, which distributes property taxes to promote private sector activity.
Put simply, taxes from St. Petersburg are set aside as grant money for the businesses of south St. Petersburg and the Midtown district.
For 2015, the CRA reported $433,000 for funding money that would go to various businesses. Much of that money would be given back as reimbursements for repairs and improvements on property. Moving into 2017, the CRA is expected to increase the amount of money allocated up to around $1.2 million dollars.
Applications for this grant will open again in the first quarter of 2017.
In the first year of the CRA, 33 community-based organizations received the fund. These businesses ranged from child day care centers to auto repair shops and restaurants.
According to Rick Smith, the downtown and CRA coordinator, the CRA is a part of a 30-year plan to improve south St. Petersburg. He said that the city has done a lot to inform the people of Midtown and south St. Pete about the benefits of the program.
“We’ve had a lot of public outreach, I think we’ve sent out over 4,000 pieces of mail to businesses in the CRA area,” said Smith.
He said that the city plans to up their marketing effort for the new year. He opened two satellite offices, sent out information through mail and held an event for more than 200 people.
The Brayboys own a restaurant in Midtown called Chief’s Creole Café; however, they are putting their portion of grant money toward the vacated Merriwether building that they have owned since 2012.
According to the Brayboys, the renovation will not be an easy undertaking, as they will need bank loans to help complete the project. Because of the $2 million estimated cost, the CRA grant would require them to get a loan from a bank first before the grant money can be used.
“If we can get this rebate, that perhaps will create an incentive for this very steep climb of trying to find bank funding for our deteriorated building,” Elihu said.
Once the building is brought back up to code and restored, said Elihu, it will be predominantly residential with a commercial component.
The Brayboys want to assess what they believe are the needs of the Midtown community by providing “affordable, safe and decent housing.”
How the grant works
The small businesses that qualified and have received the grant will get reimbursed after the companies expend their amount of funds. The grant works as a rebate.
Most businesses are expected to use their funds to make interior and exterior repairs and updates.
Delores Smith, owner of the Delores M. Smith Academy, a childcare and educational service located at the edge of Gulfport, said that she applied for a CRA grant to renovate the building that hadn’t been updated since 1978.
“The process was easy to me,” said Smith, whose application was accepted.
She met with Rick Smith (no relation) for assistance on the interior and exterior improvements.
Outreach and criticisms of the CRA
There have been some criticisms from the community about the CRA, and the continued struggle to stimulate economic growth in Midtown. Critics have reported that the process for application approval and award is too murky.
City Councilmember Darden Rice and city officials have vowed to disperse the decision-making process among the mayor’s office and a citizen advisory board. The 2016 awardees were chosen by Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times.
Maria Scruggs, the president of the NAACP St. Petersburg Branch, supports the CRA, but not the plan as it stands today. In an article in the Times, Scruggs stated that the process could support political favors to Kriseman’s office, which chose the awardees in 2016.
In a forum held at the Enoch Davis Center on Sept. 29, Scruggs spoke about the past attempts of the City of St. Petersburg to redevelop Midtown.
“The way the planning process has taken place, it really does not support the redevelopment of Midtown and Childs Park,” Scruggs averred.
Scruggs argued that because Tropicana Field is not included in the redevelopment area, the taxable revenue from the stadium couldn’t be added to help redevelop the Midtown community as a whole. Tropicana is historically part of the African-American neighborhoods that became the Midtown district.
She also considers the distribution of funding lacks a proper plan to benefit the African-American community of Midtown.
“It is not a strategic plan,” Scruggs said. She is skeptical of the grant achieving the ultimate goal of a 30 percent poverty decrease in Midtown.