ST. PETERSBURG — Stephen Peterson stood near the small crowd gathered at the spot where his new eco-friendly home with wheelchair access will be built. The 21-year-old Afghanistan veteran, who lost his right leg to an explosive device, is expected to move into his donated home around April. In time, a new home for another wounded veteran will sit across the street. And perhaps a third home will be built on a corner lot where a deserted home racking up liens now sits.
This is what progress looks like, says City Council member Karl Nurse.
One new house at a time. A foreclosed home bought and renovated. A neighborhood president and other civic-minded residents clearing the streets and properties of litter. St. Petersburg College expanding with promises of neighborhood construction jobs, and a church purposefully buying property in the blocks around its sanctuary to offer educational, social and spiritual programs to uplift the community.
This is Midtown — Second Avenue N to 30th Avenue S and Fourth Street to 34th Street — an area struggling to overcome the taint of drugs, high-profile crimes and absentee property owners.
On a recent drive through the neighborhood, Nurse, who represents a sizable portion of Midtown, appeared familiar with each foreclosed and abandoned property, city-cleared lot, hangout and drug spot.
"Eventually the good folks give up and leave," he said.
"My hope is that we can begin doing real rehabs of the properties that are in bad shape or replacing them with new houses, if that is possible. The most important element is hope. Once people see that a neighborhood is beginning to improve, then the people begin investing their time, and in some cases, money, and then you begin attracting people to come to the neighborhood.
"Then you begin attract a different kind of investor … that will do substantial rehabs rather than spray-paint rehabs," he said.
Early this year, Coral Gables dentist Dr. Richard Souviron bought the notorious Citrus Grove apartment complex at 731 15th St. S for $2.4 million with promises of turning it into a showplace.
He has installed new roofs, put in new washers and dryers, central heat and air, security lighting and a high back fence to deter troublemakers. He said he has spent $600,000 so far, and more improvements are planned.
"There's going to be some landscaping done. There is going to be some internal work done on cabinetry," he said. "If people are happy, they are going to start taking care of the place."
Gary Bush, director of codes compliance assistance for St. Petersburg, said costs for lot clearing and boarding up houses are highest in Midtown. Between January 2011 and December 2012, it cost $457,745 to mow and clean up Midtown lots, he said. During the same period, $105,625 was spent to board up area houses. "A fair portion" of what's spent is recouped when owners pay off their assessments, Bush said.
At Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, Pastor Louis Murphy and his congregation are buying property around the campus at 955 20th St. S.
"Our vision is to bring about effective change within a 2-mile radius of the church, not just a physical impact," Murphy said.
"We are buying this property so we can develop an oasis, not just a church. An oasis where needs can be met, parenting, training of skills, trying to help people get their rights restored, jobs, helping with these children before they get to kindergarten."
Mount Zion's expanded campus will include a new sanctuary for about 3,000 worshipers, a day care center that will feed into the church's kindergarten through fifth-grade school, and a multipurpose community space carved out of the current sanctuary, Murphy said.
Midtown is probably most associated with 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, killed in 2009 in a volley of gunfire aimed at her home. It is also where Nicholas Lindsey, the teenager convicted in the 2011 killing of police Officer David S. Crawford, lived.
"Until people get an education, get a job, we will still have problems in our community," said neighborhood activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter. "I'm still waiting for some economic development and rehabilitation in my community. It's at a snail's pace. They keep putting us on the back burner."
Lassiter and residents like Bettie Hayes, Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association's president, have persevered. Hayes and other women routinely have made it their duty to pick up litter for blocks around, but Hayes now uses a motorized wheelchair and is unable to fulfill the commitment as frequently as before.
After Paris' death, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, a nonprofit organization that repairs homes for the needy, rehabbed the home where the little girl had lived.
"After that project, we did a few more houses in Bartlett Park in 2011, and then 2012 in Campbell Park," said Jose Garcia, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay's executive director.
In April the organization will return to Campbell Park with plans to rehab 20 homes, he said.
This January, Community Partners in Revitalization, another nonprofit, will begin building Peterson's home at 1771 12th Ave. S. The organization will work with the Gramatica Family Foundation —- Martin Gramatica was a kicker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — and its building materials company, Gramatica SIPS, to build the house.
"We have just about all the money for Stephen's home, minus the solar system, and we are now beginning to fundraise to build the home across the street for another deserving veteran," said Mario Farias of the Farias Marketing Group and spokesman for the project.
The nonprofit Operation Finally Home, which assists with fundraising, also helps to select veterans for the homes, Farias said.
Before the groundbreaking ceremony, Peterson attempted to express his gratitude.
"It's really overwhelming," he said.
Called to offer a prayer, Urban League president Watson Haynes told the small crowd that he had grown up nearby.
To Peterson, he said, "I want to welcome you to my neighborhood."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.