Daystar Life Center, which has been serving the poor and homeless from its downtown base for 35 years, is moving to Midtown.
Buoyed by the pledge of more than $1 million from a St. Pete Beach couple, the agency has purchased a former CSX property at 28th Street and 11th Avenue S to build larger quarters that are expected to be ready next fall.
"It’s on a bus line," said Jane Trocheck Walker, Daystar executive director.
"It will give us more opportunities to be present in a neighborhood that is stressed. We were looking in a high poverty area, a food desert. … We very purposely wanted to be in a high-need, low-service area."
Midtown, a predominantly low-income, African-American area south of downtown, has no grocery store. Residents have ready access only to small, overpriced markets with limited inventories of healthful foods.
But there is some concern about Daystar’s plan. Besides serving low-income clients, a large percentage of those who receive help are homeless. Daystar’s current downtown site is where they pick up mail, get ready-to-eat canned and packaged food, bus passes and ID’s, make telephone calls and use computers to search for jobs and activate food stamps.
About 1,900 people are signed up for mail, Walker said, but not all are homeless. Some fear their mail will be stolen where they live and others who might recently have been homeless are insecure about their future.
Gwendolyn Reese, president of St. Petersburg’s African-American Heritage Association, said Walker "has a heart for the community," but wondered whether Daystar had conducted "any kind of survey, assessment, held a meeting with the neighbors to see how did they feel" about the move to Midtown.
"I’m not against services coming into the community, but the community should know it and ask questions to alleviate some concerns," said Reese, who does not live in the area. "It’s so important to involve people at the beginning and not as afterthought."
Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who represents part of Midtown, said she had initial concerns.
"I wanted to make sure that there wasn’t going to be a lot of loitering outside the building, like on Third (Avenue S and Sixth Street)," she said, referring to Daystar’s current location.
Wheeler-Bowman said she had been assured that Daystar would not move the mail service to Midtown or feed people at its new site. She also has not heard any concerns from nearby residents.
"We need to support the neighborhood, not create more issues," said Walker, who added that she’s had informal conversations with some in the Midtown community.
The property sits across from the Thomas "Jet" Jackson Recreation Center, in the Wildwood neighborhood. A donation from Kevin and Jeanne Milkey made the purchase possible. The couple has had a long association with Daystar. Kevin Milkey, executive vice president of ASI, a St. Petersburg-based insurance company, sits on the Daystar board. Jeanne Milkey, whose late father, Jay Horning, was an editor and columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, has been a volunteer, along with son, Jackson. Her parents also volunteered for the organization.
Kevin Milkey said he and his wife have committed to giving Daystar "more than a million dollars."
"We just believe in Daystar’s mission and people helping people. And just the kind of idea of helping hard-working people that may have fallen on some hard times and help prevent them from falling through the cracks," he said. "Daystar is there to help, whether it is food, keeping the power on, clothes for an interview."
The Milkeys have given close to a half-million dollars so far, some of which has been used to buying the $260,000 property outright.
"The bulk of it will come in January and February, as needed for the construction," Kevin Milkey said.
He and his wife had met with Walker to discuss Daystar’s needs, he said.
"The timing was good and so we committed to helping them get a new building," he said. "At the time, we didn’t know if it would be an existing building. We looked for over a year to see if it would be something we could buy and then we found vacant land."
Walker said it will cost $2.3 million to build the new center, with more money required to add amenities such as a generator, walk-in refrigerator and freezer and equipment to cook hot meals for clients in an emergency, such as after a hurricane. The goal is also to use solar energy.
Kevin Milkey, who heads the building committee, said the nonprofit currently plans to keep its downtown building.
"We want to keep the mail service in the current location," he said, acknowledging that it is prime downtown space.
"They sold the three properties behind us. They are no longer housing people that have a limited income," Walker said. "People are having to come farther for assistance."
Daystar was started in 1982 by the late Monsignor John P. McNulty as an outreach ministry of St. Mary Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church, 515 Fourth St. S. Its first home was in the basement of St. Mary’s. The new Midtown building will be 10,000 square feet, more than twice that of the current center.
"We will be able to do more exciting things," Walker said, mentioning a larger food pantry where clients can "shop" for items they need.
"It will lend choice and dignity," she said. "Hopefully, we can be more of a supplemental pantry rather than an emergency pantry. Hunger is a regular problem, not a once-a-year or twice-a-year problem."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.