City buying Science Center from CareerSource, may tear it down

The building needs major repairs. The city plans to use part of the property to expand a wastewater treatment plant that spilled 58 million gallons in 2016.
Berkeley Preparatory School students with Sue Thompson's fourth-grade-class enter the Science Center at CareerSource Pinellas' Tyrone center, 7701 22nd Ave N, in St. Petersburg on Wednesday (1/10/17) during a STEM-focused field trip. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Berkeley Preparatory School students with Sue Thompson's fourth-grade-class enter the Science Center at CareerSource Pinellas' Tyrone center, 7701 22nd Ave N, in St. Petersburg on Wednesday (1/10/17) during a STEM-focused field trip.DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published June 14
Updated June 14

ST. PETERSBURG — The Science Center of Pinellas County is getting a new owner — one that may decide to tear the place down.

Long a popular spot for school field trips and summer camps, the Science Center's seven-acre property at 7701 22nd Ave. N. is being bought by the city of St. Petersburg for $3.15 million, said Ben Kirby, spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman. Kriseman's staff will ask the City Council to approve the deal next month, he said.

The current owner, CareerSource Pinellas, needs to unload the property because it is facing a final balloon mortgage payment on it of $586,000 this year, and the agency lacks the cash to cover that debt. Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard, who is vice chair of the CareerSource board, said the money from the city will be used to pay off that debt.

Meanwhile, the buildings need major repairs and renovations, Gerard and Kirby said.

Gerard said she had been told the city, rather than fixing up the place, plans to tear it down and build affordable housing on that site, as well as use some of the land for expanding a nearby wastewater treatment plant. Kirby said that while razing the building and building affordable housing have been discussed, nothing is definite at this point.

"I wouldn't say it's guaranteed we keep it, and I wouldn't say it's guaranteed we tear it down," Kirby said. As for the affordable housing, "we're trying to keep an open mind about what could be there."

He said the city's bid to buy the property originated with its need to expand its Northwest Water Reclamation Facility at 7500 26th Ave. In 2016, that plant played a role in the city's sewage spill crisis. After Hurricane Hermine dumped heavy rains on the city, 58 million gallons of partially treated sewage flowed into neighborhoods, across 22nd Avenue N and into nearby Walter Fuller Park. Storm drains dumped it into Boca Ciega Bay.

The plant needs more capacity, Kirby said. By taking over the Science Center property, the plant can add facilities to store up to 15 million gallons should the need arise, he said.

The Science Center opened in 1959 on Arlington Avenue N downtown. The buildings on its current site went up in 1966 and 1973, and have been renovated numerous times over the years. By 2004, some 22,000 people were visiting the site to tour the Indian village, marvel at the planetarium show or hear talks about such topics as alligator safety, hurricane preparation, archaeology and kitchen chemistry.

But by 2014 the center's finances were failing and CareerSource stepped in and bought the place. Ed Peachey, then the CEO of CareerSource Pinellas, told the agency’s executive committee members he could pick it up for $100 and use some of its space for job training.

"Obviously, we’re going in there to make this work and kind of bring the Science Center back to life," he told them. "It’s fallen on hard times. It just needs an infusion of something new. We can bring that to the table."

The committee approved the purchase, but Peachey never brought it back to the full board. Instead, CareerSource took out a $700,000 mortgage on the property and spent more than $400,000 on repairs and unpaid bills.

County officials were alarmed by the purchase but couldn't get answers to their questions about it from Peachey. At one point CareerSource applied to open a charter school there, but later withdrew the bid. In December, the CareerSource board voted to sell the Science Center. Five buyers bid for the property, and the board selected St. Petersburg's bid in April.

Peachey was fired in March 2018. Last month, federal regulators blasted CareerSource for "blatant non-compliance" with rules, faked job-placement figures and $17 million in questionable spending.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story . Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.