The St. Pete New Deal: Community based economic development plan

Dear Editor:

For most of the last 40 years, community activists have waited on new administrations to come in and announce their economic development plans for Midtown. Sadly, most times there was no plan or weak and ineffective plans.

A few years ago, a former city official told me that the then mayor told him that the Midtown community did not know what they wanted, as an excuse for not doing anything of any significance.  While I would disagree with the notion that the community did not know what it wanted, I would agree that those desires were not articulated and put forth in a manner that was clear.

Recently a group of concerned citizens started meeting to develop a community based economic development plan.  This plan would encapsulate the desires of the community, first as a vision, and then a concrete plan for improvement and change in Midtown.

This vision would be discussed within the community, and after sufficient input from the community was obtained, a broader discussion would take place with city officials.  It is first necessary to gather input and approval from the community before approval from the city administration because, at the end of the day, it is community support for the vision that is going to either make it successful or not.

The group adopted the area within the boundaries of the CRA and renamed it the Sunshine City Renaissance Area. This change was made because this area is broader than the old Midtown area. This change was also made because a key funding instrument would be the CRA.

The vision created is for a plan that will be transformative, rather than incremental. We have had small incremental plans for the last 40 years that have been, by and large, ineffective. These plans have not taken any kind of holistic approach where several issues are addressed simultaneously but instead were piecemeal.

We believe that the community needs and deserves a transformative plan that deals with affordable housing, business development and retention and education and training together.  We don’t need a plan that commits $130 million over 30 years.

We need a plan that commits $200 million over 10 years.  We anticipate that the plan would be developed by utilizing top-notch talent with experience developing community plans with input from the Sunshine City Renaissance Area community, the businesses within the Renaissance Area and the city administration and staff.

The Community Based Economic Development Plan for the Sunshine City Renaissance Area is one of the cornerstone components of the New Deal for St. Pete.

Affordable housing has been a major issue for the Renaissance Area for many years.  While administrations have dealt with the issue on a piecemeal basis, it is now time for a comprehensive strategy that develops new housing, and not a few units per year, but 500 to 1000 units over the next 10 years.

There are clearly ways and means to provide such housing. What has been lacking is the desire to do so.  If a plan were devised to create that many new housing units, it would create an economic boom in the Renaissance Area that could be used to assist many existing as well as new businesses.

Just think about the housing upgrades that would provide for the community. This would break the grip of the numerous investors in Renaissance Area that provide marginal housing at outrageous prices. It could dramatically increase home ownership.

Other than the small grants that are offered by the CRA, there are no significant programs for business development in the Renaissance Area. There are only small programs that have been tried on other occasions but have created no lasting benefit over the last 40 years.

What is needed is a robust program that will send a signal to businesses that more than “business as usual” is going on in the Renaissance Area. Operating a business in the Renaissance Area is a high-risk proposition. Businesses know this and show a great reluctance to take that risk.

A new paradigm of risk sharing needs to be developed to give businesses confidence that if they invest in the Renaissance Area, there will be assistance both in marketing to prospective customers as well as providing assistance in training their employees. They need to know that there are business retention programs that can assist while they are navigating new market conditions that are quite frankly unknown to most of them.

Education and training is going to be one of the most vital pieces of any transformative plan. The most important training and education piece will be getting the community engaged with the businesses that operate in Renaissance Area.

Currently, the residents of the Renaissance Area do not support the businesses, in a meaningful way, that are located there. Until the city and the community recognize and accepts this as a key issue, virtually nothing else is going to be solved.

There may be many reasons for the current situation. We have to understand what those reasons are and take steps to mitigate them if any plan is going to be successful. We are going to have to scour the country and find best practices for programs and processes that can be used to mitigate this problem.

In addition, training and education in the areas of childcare, business development, employee training, et al. are critical to giving the housing and business development components a chance to be successful.  We can’t just build buildings and hope that everything else will take care of itself.

This is a unique time for the Sunshine City Renaissance Area.  If we can come together and demand a new transformative plan and support that plan through its completion, the Renaissance Area can be transformed forever into an integral part of this city.  If not, we can continue to be the poor, dysfunctional part of the city that we have traditionally been.

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