BY PASTOR MANUEL SYKES, Bethel Community Baptist Church
There is a pattern that has developed within the current city’s administration. A couple of years ago, the city put out a request for proposal (RFP) for the 14 acres of vacant land across the street from the Manhattan Casino. There were several proposals submitted. The original bids were all rejected.
Several months later, the city announced that it had reached an agreement to sell the land to a combination of two different development groups. One would be a motorcycle repair business and the other would be a business that would build, among other things, workforce housing.
The two businesses would bring approximately 60 jobs. If the businesses were successful, they would receive steep discounts on the price of the land.
There were several problems with the deals the city accepted. First, the projects would be a poor use of 14 acres to develop the type projects they were developing.
Next, very few of the goods or services sold by the motorcycle repair business would be utilized by the residents of Midtown.
Finally, the workforce housing promised was 40 one bedroom units. Although there may be a workforce population within St. Petersburg that demands 40 one bedroom units, that population, for certain, does not currently reside in Midtown. This was, and is, clearly a gentrification project.
Although this administration will talk about the jobs created by the deals, those jobs are not promised or guaranteed and if they are delivered, they are required for a period of less than 10 years. The land use and its impact will last far beyond any 10 year period.
This administration fought for and reclaimed control of the Manhattan Casino from a black controlled business and promised the community that it would be quickly put back in the hands of a new business group mindful of its place within the black community.
The city put out an RFP and asked for proposals for a new restaurant group. Two black controlled groups presented proposals. Both of those proposals were rejected by the current administration.
The city then began negotiating deals with private groups that had not participated in the RFP process. They announced recently that they were negotiating an agreement with a group for a Cuban restaurant. Clearly another gentrification project.
Given the history of the Manhattan Casino, the move by this administration shows the clear disdain they have for the black community.
The administration announced recently that it was spending $1.3 million on a new skate park in Campbell Park on 16th Street South. Why a skate park there?
They did not ask this community what they thought about the idea. They just did it because they could. This is a facility that is not likely to be used by very many current Midtown residents. Another gentrification project.
This administration held several meetings around town and at least two in Midtown about the proposed renovation of the Tropicana site. The proposed reason for holding these meetings in Midtown was to get input from this community.
There were several ideas that were advanced by several members of the community as to ways the site could be redeveloped that would benefit Midtown. In the plan that was developed, none of the suggestions that came from the Midtown attendees were adopted or included.
It’s very strange in that any plan proposing to spend as much as one billion for renovation includes nothing to mitigate one of the city’s most glaring issues that abut the long-neglected low-income community that was displaced from that very site by eminent domain, and promises of shared prosperity.
Chances are plans to deal with the development of this site are not being made public at this time because they, more than likely, include further gentrification.
The current administration is not the only gentrification enablers that Midtown residents should be concerned about. There are several enablers in Midtown masquerading as community leaders. They have been bought off with appointments to boards, public recognition and when all else fails, small grants to do insignificant things.
It is way passed time for this community to stand and demand from whoever runs for office that we are interested only in effective, transformative change comparable to the development of downtown and Central Avenue.
This change must benefit and stabilize the existing community, not displace its residents as a condition of investment, incentives and amenities. Gentrification is not the hope of integration that African Americans abandoned their businesses to support. It is purchasing neglected and devalued properties caused by systemic deprivation and exclusion from the city’s plans for improvement.
We cannot evolve from the ghetto and despair to an arts district that continues to discount the current residents who don’t benefit from paintings and pottery.
Their primary interest is struggling for daily existence.
Therefore, it must be surmised that the current residents are not a visible factor in this development. It is a plan to lure a whole new demographic into the area whose economic and social standards allow for esoteric pursuits and interests.
When a bright, neon welcome mat is placed at the main entrance of a historic and neglected part of the community, it is not for the residents who live there.
When more is spent on image and branding than summer job programs, affordable housing development where residents own both the home and the ground underneath and genuine public private partnership for the poor and neglected, only one conclusion emerges. Gentrification!