ST. PETE BEACH — For months rumors have swirled that recently released inmates, drug addicts and alcoholics may soon take up residence on W Corey Avenue.
On Tuesday, City Manager Mike Bonfield confirmed that he recently met with a real estate firm interested in converting one or more of several aging motel properties on Corey Avenue into transitional housing.
Mayor Mike Finnerty said residents are strongly opposed to transitional housing in the area "for many good reasons. It would make it more dangerous to live there. We have a lot of elderly and a lot of youngsters in that area who certainly don't need the added fear."
But John Folger, president of the company that is seeking to acquire the properties, said there's no need for worry.
"We are looking to relocate people in drug and alcohol programs that are looking for places to stay," said Folger of American Community Development Group. "We are not bringing in felons and we are not planning to bring in thousands of drug addicts to St. Pete Beach."
Folger's firm is a St. Petersburg-based publicly traded company that provides financing, consulting and operational services to nonprofits in the Tampa Bay area. One particular focus is providing housing for "the homeless, ex-offenders, drug and alcohol programs and housing facilities for other disadvantaged persons."
Bonfield said that if the proposed program meets zoning and building codes, there is little the city can do to block it.
"Local government interference in access to housing is frowned upon very heavily by the U.S. Justice Department," Bonfield said, citing a lawsuit nearby Treasure Island recently lost over just that issue.
The aging properties, some of which are now vacant, are owned by Suzanne Ferry and are located on both the north and south sides of Corey Avenue between Gulf Boulevard and Sunset Way.
Ferry said Tuesday that she had talked with Folger several weeks ago about selling her property, but that no contract was ever reached. She declined to comment further.
The properties have a controversial past. A decade ago, the city fined Ferry nearly $20,000 for a variety of code violations and at one point the city considered condemning and seizing the properties by eminent domain.
Today, although there are still building code issues, "the exterior is as good as it has been in a long time," Bonfield said.
However, residents want the city to do more than pursue code violations.
"I do not want ex-cons being housed in St. Pete Beach for transition from prison back into society," said Jeff Gavern.
Another resident, Vicki Dewey, snarkily dubbed the proposed project as the "Felony Beach Club."
"I can't take it anymore. I will sell. … I wish I could afford to sue for myself and for my neighbors," said homeowner Susan Hershman in an e-mail to Bonfield and the City Commission. "We are losing peace of mind and homes and probably health due to the stress and our dreams of retirement and I am crying every day."
If Folger's company does offer transitional housing on Corey Avenue, it would not be the first such program in St. Pete Beach.
Spencer Recovery Centers operates a drug and alcohol rehabilitation treatment program, including housing for its clients, just a few blocks from City Hall and the W Corey Avenue area.
"It's probably comparable. They have been there for a number of years and we have had no issues with them," Bonfield said Tuesday.
If Folger's firm does proceed with a project on Corey, he said it would "clean up and rehabilitate" the properties. Restoring broken lives is his goal.
"Nothing can match the tremendous gratification of seeing the lives of men, women and families being rebuilt that were damaged by drugs, alcohol, abuse, health issues or incarceration," Folger said in an e-mail to Bonfield and his staff.
City Commissioner Al Halpern, who represents the Corey Avenue area, is opposed to the idea.
"Everybody needs a chance to have a place to live," Halpern said Tuesday. "But I don't think the beach, a resort area, is the place for this type of facility."
In fact, Halpern said if residents decide to protest the project, "I will be down there on the picket line holding signs for them."