Stubborn poverty in Midtown

Dear Editor:

The Tampa Bay Times published an article in last Sunday’s paper about the stubborn poverty in Midtown that the city could not make go away.  The article was one of the more intellectually dishonest articles that the Times have written concerning Midtown.

I say that it was intellectually dishonest because it starts off with the premise that the city has “steered” over $200 million to Midtown over the last 18 years and had not made a dent in the poverty levels.

There was no mention of the major recession that took place between 2008 and 2010 that devastated Midtown.  During that period of time, home values went from an average of $65,000 to less than $25,000.  Many people lost their homes because of the subprime mortgages, which opened the door to investors who swooped in and purchased these properties for a little as 20 cents on the dollar.

There was no mention that the Obama administration gave the City of St. Pete several million dollars to help with the housing crisis.  Although a few homes were purchased, most of the money was used to acquire houses, which were torn down and the land was land banked. Land banking is the practice of aggregating parcels of land for future sale or development.  This actually led to a reduction of residents in Midtown.

A closer analysis of that $200 million indicates that almost half of the money was spent on the “failure factories” that the school board built in Midtown.  Those schools were built with very little utilization of labor by Midtown residents.

It is exceedingly difficult to understand how $100 million spent on projects that were built by people from outside the community that retained virtually all of the economic benefits could be considered a poverty reduction process for Midtown.

Forty million was spent on the job core facility.  Again, another project that was built by people outside of the community that retained all of the economic benefits.

Then the article mentioned substantial purchases of land some of which is to be utilized for Commerce Park and some of which was used for the Midtown Plaza.  Until something is built on the land to create jobs, the mere acquisition of land does not create economic development or poverty reduction.

The shopping center did create over 150 jobs.  Those jobs went away for several reasons, but nevertheless, they are gone.

Including the money spent on the shopping center, it would be a very fair guess, that less than $25 million was spent on economic development in Midtown over the 18 year period mentioned in the article, particularly projects that were designed to reduce poverty.

That would amount to about $1.5 million per year.  Spending an average of $1.5 million per year on an area the size of Midtown to reduce poverty is like giving Tic Tacs to a whale to kill bad breath.

It would also be a fair guess that over that same period, over a billion and a half dollars was spent in downtown St. Petersburg alone on projects that would actually be considered economic development projects.

Although the article asked the question, it never provided an answer as to why poverty was so stubborn in Midtown.  These are my best guesses. I say guesses because they are as good as the guesses quoted in the article.

1.  Totally inadequate funding.  Serious funds have to be committed to a serious problem.

2.   Changing plans and administrations.  Every new administration that comes in wants to put their spin on things.  Whatever the previous administration has done must be rejected out of hand.  As a result, there is no sustained effort over any sustained period of time.

The process restarts with every new administration. The problems in Midtown took a long time to build up and needs a long term sustained effort to correct.

3.  Lack of adequate planning.  Just like in the article, people and administrators are being asked what they think the problem is.  The truth is if they knew the answers, the problems would have been solved a long time ago.

Seat of the pants analysis and hunches have gotten us where we are now.  How about a complete empirical analysis that identifies the challenges, develops concrete plans and solutions and the provision of adequate staff and other resources to accomplish them?

4. Lack of engagement by all of the stakeholders. Ask any business trying to operate in Midtown what their most serious issue is and they will tell you that aside of inadequate capital, is lack of support by the community.

Midtown does not support the local businesses sufficiently for them to prosper.  While a lack of funds is often cited as the problem, lack of desire is just as big of a problem.  There may be very good reasons for this lack of support.  At the end of the day, this problem has to be mitigated if Midtown is ever going to prosper.

All of the stakeholders: the residents, the businesses, the city government, the religious community, the neighborhood associations, the sororities and fraternities has a role to play and need to be called upon to perform.

Larry Newsome

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