A national edict from the Department of Labor that the 125 Job Corps training centers around the country stop accepting new students until June 30 puts the future of the new, hard-won $42 million St. Petersburg center that was a decade in the making in limbo.
"I do think it's at risk for across-the-board cuts," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. "Because the whole program went over budget, it's facing very significant battles in Congress."
She is glad the St. Petersburg Job Corps program, which serves more than 200 low-income students with free training, housing and meals, was exempted from an initial list of centers the Department of Labor planned to close completely earlier this month. Instead of closing seven centers, however, it decided to cut costs by freezing new admissions at all centers.
"They exempted us because we just opened. Taxpayers invested $42 million to construct Pinellas Job Corps, and it wouldn't make sense to turn their back on that investment," Castor said. "They are doing a good job in an area where young people need jobs."
Castor wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor urging that the freeze on new admissions at the Pinellas Job Corps be lifted.
Larry Deisler, director of Pinellas County Job Corps, did not return telephone calls from the Times on Friday, so it is unclear if reducing enrollment will mean cutting any of the 125 jobs at the Midtown facility.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is concerned but optimistic that the center, which offers GED classes and training in areas such as health care and construction, will continue to operate.
"At this point I don't want to prematurely alarm the community that it is going to be another blow to St. Petersburg. This is something that my staff and I are monitoring closely, but these are decisions that are made in Washington, D.C.," said Foster, who has spoken with Castor. "This is one area that I think Republicans and Democrats and the Obama administration recognize is important. This is the training needed for young people who would otherwise be at risk for being recipients of public assistance. It fits the Republican mantra and it fits the Democrat mantra."
Heather Johnson fears she may fall victim to even the temporary freeze on new admissions.
"They can pay for my welfare and food stamps, or pay for my education so I can support myself," said the 22-year-old Bradenton resident, who was at the Pinellas Job Corps at 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue S on Friday for an admissions interview. She had seen word of the freeze on new admissions go up on the Job Corps Facebook page two days earlier, but was told to come in for her interview anyway.
Johnson completed 70 percent of the Clinical Medical Assistant training program at a Kentucky Job Corps center in late 2010 when she suffered a leg injury that required surgery and had to drop out. She's now ready to start over in St. Petersburg but has hit another road block.
"I was so excited. I was getting my life back in order," she said, adding that she can't afford community college.
Paula Hays' 18-year-old granddaughter is another victim of the freeze. They were two of the approximately 70 people at an orientation for prospective students Wednesday where the Job Corps admissions counselor broke the news that nobody could start the program until at least June 30.
"Everyone was crushed," she said. "The admissions counselor said he'd worked for Job Corps for 16 years and never seen anything like this. He encouraged us to call (U.S. Rep. C.W.) Bill Young's office."
The uncertainty at the 17-acre modern campus of fresh red brick and walls of windows is a second blow to Midtown. Sweetbay is closing its supermarket there in February when it shutters 33 outlets.
Tampa Bay Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.