A conversation with city officials

Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, director, Urban Affairs, Alan DeLisle, City Development Administrator, Jessica Eilerman, Greenhouse Manager, Small Business Liaison, and Veatrice Farrell, executive director, Deuces Live.

By Frank Drouzas, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Having strong neighborhood associations is vital when it comes to receiving input from residents and learning critical information that affects not only the neighborhood but the city.

The Childs Park Neighborhood Association has its monthly meeting come rain or shine – or pandemic. Conducted by Bro. John Muhammad, the association’s president, their August meeting gave residents a chance to speak with city officials via Zoom.

Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, director of Urban Affairs for the City of St. Petersburg, noted that lifelines to important city campaigns and initiatives such as My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper, Cohort of Champions, and Not My Son have been kept strong through the pandemic.

“We’ve been able to pivot as a result of COVID-19,” she said. “We were one of those first ones out of the gate at the beginning in March to start offering our programs via Zoom so that we did not miss a beat.”

Capehart said through the city’s partnership with One Community – a comprehensive plan for economic growth in south St. Pete – Urban Affairs wanted to reach out to as many families as possible through the members of the entrepreneurial ecosystem to focus on testing early on for COVID.

“The testing was a major focus for us early,” she said, noting that Childs Park was one of the area’s first testing sites.

Amid the landscape of COVID, programs such as the Inclusive St. Pete MBE Accelerator, which focuses on fast-tracking minority firms’ participation in corporate and government supplier diversity procurement programs, have still seen success. Capehart said that over half of the participants still have received their Florida State Minority Supplier Development Council Certification, which allows them to grow and continue to hire employees.

“So many of those businesses have realized that growth even in the midst of COVID,” she said, “as a result of being a part of this accelerator.”

Urban Affairs continues to do meaningful work concerning a study on structural racism and equitable redevelopment.

City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle spoke of the Tropicana Field Site Request for Proposals (RFP) and its impending redevelopment plan, as Tropicana sits atop 86 acres of publicly-owned land.

“We’ve brought in an internationally-renowned architect and their team to look at the site and to do a study, or an analysis, of the site with the baseball stadium,” he said, adding that the city has spent about two years reaching out to the community and getting ideas to put the study together.

Another study was done and another plan drawn up to allow for the possibility of the stadium no longer being on the land. The same principles were maintained in both plans.

“Those principles are reflected in the RFP that we just issued,” DeLisle said, adding that though the property is technically owned by the county, the city does have control of it.

Because of its accessible location, he said it couldn’t be a “better economic development gift” to the city. The infrastructure is in good shape, and Booker Creek runs through it, providing the property with water.

The second study done — the one without the stadium as the focus – Booker Creek and development around it became the focus. Market rate and affordable housing for the property are in both plans. The city will look at any disparity and mobility studies that can be done for recommendations as well.

Even though the RFP has been issued, DeLisle said the city is always still listening to the community for ideas of how to develop the property.

“The Request For Proposals goes out until Jan. 15 of next year,” he said, “so we’re giving the development community a long time to look at this, to study it. I hope if you read the RFP you will see that it’s just chock full of reports, studies, information about who we are in St. Petersburg.”

DeLisle said that St. Pete is looking to the Jan. 15 deadline for submissions from developers from around the world, but underscored that the city does not want to sell the land to a developer “to do whatever they want.”

“They have to partner with the city, 50-50 partnership, and they have to deliver on what they say they’re going to do once they are selected,” he said.

After the January deadline, it will take several months for the mayor to decide — allowing for community input — and for the city and developer to make a development agreement then.

Economic Development Coordinator George Smith noted that the city has continued to offer purchase assistance for homeowners in St. Pete through various housing programs.

“We offer assistance up to $20,000 for homebuyers as long as your household income is less than 140 percent of AMI (area median income),” he said. “For a family of four, just to give you some sense of what that means, the household income cannot exceed $98,420.”

There is also the rehab assistance program, Smith pointed out, which is geared toward addressing repair to systems of homes, like roofing, electrical, air conditioning and plumbing. The maximum loan amount is $45,000.

Through the Facade Improvement Grant Program, homebuyers can receive grant funding to repair and enhance the exterior facade of a property. The maximum grant amount is $8,000 and is limited to household incomes of 80 percent of AMI. The AMI for the Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater area is $69,200.

Smith encouraged anyone interested in assistance through these or other housing programs to contact him at george.smith@stpete.org or (727) 892-5210.

Jessica Eilerman, Greenhouse Manager, Small Business Liaison, noted that the St. Pete Greenhouse, a city and chamber of commerce partnership, is continuing to provide business owners and entrepreneurs with education, resources and assistance.

“If you are a business owner or an aspiring business owner or thinking about entrepreneurship…the Greenhouse is really your front door,” she said.

St. Pete Greenhouse has adjusted for COVID, so about half of the workshops offered are now on-demand, as these taped classes on various topics are beneficial for business owners. This online library of classes is available 24 hours a day. There are also virtual classes that feature live presentations.

“We are incorporating a lot of questions and answer into those to make it as participatory as possible,” Eilerman said.

Mentorship and business consulting are also offered free of charge, she said, and touted the Small Business Navigator Program, which is essentially city staff members who are assigned to geographic areas throughout the city to be responsive to business owners.

“It is a way to develop a relationship with an economic development staff member who can really work one-on-one with you and answer questions, get you where you want to go, talk about your business development and then link you into all of the resources that exist,” Eilerman explained.

Concerning the establishment of business projects, Veatrice Farrell, executive director, Deuces Live said that there are a number of projects taking place at the Deuces Live. The historic area has been named a Florida Main Street — this designation qualifies it for an assistance program of redevelopment with an overreaching arch of historic preservation.

Years of working on projects is now paying dividends, as many are coming to fruition at the same time.

“The advantages of having a business organization is that you collectively can do things together that maybe you wouldn’t be able to do separately,” Farrell said. “So if the name of your business association was Childs Park Business Association, then you could have events and publicize all the businesses in your area.”

The aim is to market the area to encourage people to look at business opportunities or rent or buy homes. Currently, she said, there are several projects on the corridor that are in various stages of development.

There will likely be activity soon on the Manhattan Casino property and across the street, and the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum has been promised five acres from the city. A private developer is looking to rezone seven acres from industrial to mixed-use commercial on the corridor’s north end.

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