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St. Petersburg eyes special taxing district to help struggling Midtown

ST. PETERSBURG — Bringing development to Midtown has been hard.

The 5.5-square-mile area south of downtown didn't have a library until 2002. A post office and supermarket didn't arrive until 2005. And a credit union finally followed in 2009.

Though $100 million in government grants flowed through the poverty-stricken area between 1998 and 2008, the enclave remains stuffed with crumbling buildings, vacant homes and struggling businesses.

City and community leaders have made repeated pledges to help improve it, but change has been hard. Despite a pricey renovation, the historic Manhattan Casino, where Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and B.B. King once wooed crowds, sat vacant until last year.

Now, city leaders believe they have a solution to propel growth.

The City Council recently authorized administrators to create boundaries for Midtown to become a Community Redevelopment Area — the first step in creating a tax increment financing district. That would allow the city to use the area's property tax revenues for capital projects there.

Dollars from private developers typically follow public money.

"With the plan in place, it's much easier to attract development," said City Council member Karl Nurse, who represents part of the area.

If created, the financing district would be the first one in Pinellas County to be created outside a city's downtown core. The Pinellas County Commission also would have to approve the measure.

"We certainly ought to look at this," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, who lives in St. Petersburg. "I think it's a small way to invest for generations. I think it's just a nod of the head."

Many cities also borrow on future revenues to infuse money more quickly into the districts.

The funds cannot be used for most personnel costs, such as adding police officers or firefighters, or most city programs.

Critics contend the districts drain city and county tax dollars for as long as 30 years, seizing cash that otherwise could have paid for police officers or recreation centers or to lower tax rates.

They also note that the tax increment financing districts are not quick fixes. It could be years before money flows into Midtown as property values remain flat.

Currently, St. Petersburg has three such districts: the Intown Redevelopment Area, the Bayboro Harbor Redevelopment Area and the Intown West Redevelopment Area.

In years past, special taxing district money has flowed into many projects:

• In 2010, the city diverted $2.5 million earmarked for downtown pedestrian improvements to the new Dalí Museum when officials fell short of fundraising goals.

• In 2006, the city spent $25.9 million to renovate the Mahaffey Theater. New features included an atrium made of glass overlooking Tampa Bay, a redone box office, bathrooms and concession stands. The theater itself was brightened with new paint and upholstery.

• In 2005, the City Council and County Commission agreed to use $50 million in district funding to replace the aging Pier. Design work is under way.

A district could only help the struggling Midtown, said Mayor Bill Foster, who added that he has a "renewed sense of optimism" for the idea though county leaders opposed creating a new district several years ago.

Foster cautioned that not all areas of the city would benefit from such a district. "It's all a matter of defining the redevelopment area," he said.

Tampa has redeveloped eight neighborhoods with district money. Districts created in the 1980s built the Tampa Convention Center. In recent years, the money has helped refurbish Ybor City and the Channel District, where apartments and condos now quickly sell after going on the market.

Money can be spent on structures, streetscape projects, lighting and sidewalks. Deteriorating streets could be replaced and widened. Utilities could be added or improved.

"I don't think there would be any shortage of projects," said Welch, the county commissioner.

While the rejuvenated downtown St. Petersburg draws arts and craft fairs, concerts, festivals and thousands of shoppers to the Saturday Morning Market, nearby Midtown continues to struggle.

In southern portions of St. Petersburg, 25 percent of residents live at or below the federal poverty level in five zip codes — one of the five poorest areas in the county.

The area lags behind others in jobs, income, housing values and access to health care.

Former Mayor Rick Baker's Midtown initiative poured at least $54 million into new recreation centers, infrastructure improvements and housing programs. Seven new shopping plazas opened, including Tangerine Plaza, where Sweetbay Supermarket created 85 jobs.

Still, vacant storefronts and trash-strewn streets clutter the area. Jobs are scarce.

City Council member Wengay Newton, who represents part of the area, wants the redevelopment to create more jobs with small businesses. He'd also like to rid streets of boarded up buildings and add more landscaping to streets and intersections.

"This isn't just about palm trees in the middle of the street," he said. "Midtown is not downtown."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

St. Petersburg eyes special taxing district to help struggling Midtown 09/22/12 [Last modified: Sunday, September 23, 2012 12:11am]

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