BY LAUREN HENSLEY and REBEKAH DAVILA Neighborhood News Bureau
ST. PETERSBURG – His family’s church once stood in a neighborhood where Tropicana Field is today. His father’s boyhood home was on the site of today’s John Hopkins Middle School, which was two blocks from his grandfather’s wood business and nine blocks from the family’s tax and accounting firm.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, 50, is proud that his family’s roots go back three generations in an area that is now called Midtown.
“I’ve lived, worked and played in Midtown all my life,” he said.
That may help explain why he has been a leading advocate for a local government plan that will plow up to $70 million in extra property tax revenue into the poverty-plagued area over the next 30 years.
The plan designates the neighborhoods of Midtown and Childs Park a “Community Redevelopment Area.”
As a CRA, the sprawling, 7.5-square-mile area becomes a tax-increment financing district, where annual increases in city and county property tax revenue generated there will be spent there on improvements in housing, health care, economic opportunities and education.
“Our county is becoming prosperous, but within the county (there are places where) poverty is increasing,” said Welch. “In this county we can never reach our full potential if we have this poverty that is growing.”
The St. Petersburg City Council and County Commission have both embraced the plan, and “we are well on our way to full approval,” said Welch.
The CRA for Midtown and Childs Park grew out of a 2012 study that identified five pockets of poverty in Pinellas County. The other four were the North Greenwood neighborhood of Clearwater and areas in Lealman, High Point and east Tarpon Springs.
The largest pocket – Midtown-Childs Park – is bounded by Fourth and 49th streets between Second Avenue North and 30th Avenue South, excluding Tropicana Field and its parking lots. Almost half of Pinellas County’s low-income population lives in that area, the study found, and 45 percent of them are children. About 650 vacant and boarded-up homes are there, too.
Taken together, the five poverty areas cost local government an estimated $2.5 billion a year, Welch said.
Most of that money “is going toward poverty reaction,” said Welch. “We are more reactionary towards the impacts of poverty. We are paying for folks showing up to the ER as their primary means of health care. We are paying for kids not graduating (from high school) and ending up on welfare or in the sheriff’s facilities.
“Even if you don’t live in one of those areas impacted by poverty, you’re paying for it,” he said.
Welch, a former member of the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, stresses the importance of early childhood education.
“We lose kids before they even get to kindergarten because they don’t have those primary skills,” Welch said. “A lot of these kids are just plopped down in front of a TV and they’re not getting any educational value … You can look at the school test scores and see that high-poverty schools are the ones having the most difficult time.
“When you have kids that aren’t in school, not getting that degree, there is no potential any more. They’ve locked themselves into poverty,” he said. “This CRA will help to prevent the issues in the beginning and help to end the poverty overall.”
State law gives county governments the authority to create CRAs and the tax-increment financing that goes with them.
The Pinellas County Commission has never created a CRA outside a downtown core, Welch said. If the commission also creates a CRA for the poverty pocket in the Lealman area, as expected, it will be the first in an unincorporated area of the county.
In the CRA covering Midtown and Childs Park, the additional property tax revenue will be dedicated to rent subsidies for businesses, loans and grants for building improvements, workforce training programs, and early childhood education.
A nine-member advisory committee – six from the city and three from the county – will recommend where to spend the money each year, so that projects that fail to meet expectations will lose funding. The final decisions will be made by the City Council and County Commission.
Welch, who was first elected to the County Commission in 2000, said he intends to run for re-election in 2016. That would mean he would be around to help oversee the first years of the 30-year CRA program.
After that? Welch said he would consider running for mayor of St. Petersburg or Congress.
Lauren Hensley and Rebekah Davila are reporters in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. NNB reporter Alexa Burch also contributed to this report, which includes information from the Tampa Bay Times.