CLEARWATER — One hour into the City Council candidate forum hosted by the NAACP Clearwater/Upper Pinellas Branch, Kira Cole politely explained the groans and cringes that came from the audience so far.
"Unfortunately our Clearwater is very different from your Clearwater. It’s difficult to relate and to put yourself in the shoes of the community if you don’t know the concerns of the community," said Cole, 26. "How are you going to ensure that the community is represented, because it’s very evident that you don’t understand the needs at the moment."
Like many of the 50 others at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center on Wednesday, resident Audrey Hipps, 71, had never seen any of the four gray-haired white men spend time in the historically African-American North Greenwood neighborhood before this election campaign.
So it started as a standard Q&A for candidates to tout platforms before the March 13 election. But it evolved over two hours into a display of how underserved and overlooked North Greenwood residents feel by the city. Many of the candidates’ answers confirmed residents’ points about the disconnect.
NAACP branch vice president Zebbie D. Atkinson noted how the city last year gave $600,000 to a wealthy investor to open a shared workspace downtown. He asked what kind of investment the candidates plan to make in disadvantaged areas.
"As far as the investment, we’ve made the investment," responded Seat 5 incumbent Hoyt Hamilton, 59, co-owner of the Palm Pavilion restaurant and inn. "Greenwood has just as good, the same level of sanitary sewer that any other neighborhood in Clearwater has," which prompted a chorus of groans.
When asked about concerns that North Greenwood is not being represented at city events like Blast Friday, Seat 4 candidate David Allbritton, 67, a retired contractor, assumed the crowd wanted to hear "more Motown or whatever" and suggested residents reach out to Ruth Eckerd Hall, which runs the monthly event. The audience shifted in their seats, turned to each other and stared.
Lifelong resident Diane Stephens, 62, asked why city officials and candidates are not more proactive in her neighborhood, why residents must always reach out with needs instead of having officials prompt conversation.
"Maybe what you need to do is come and walk a little bit in our shoes to see what we’re going through," Stephens said. "If you want to represent us, we say come on down and we’ll talk to you. Why do we have to come to City Hall?"
Hamilton responded that the best way to reach him is by office phone and that his secretary will take a message if he’s not available.
"If you call City Hall and ask me to come to your house to talk to me and want to ask a question or show me something in your community, I will answer that call and I will come, but I’m not a mind reader," Hamilton said. "We are very busy people."
Seat 4 candidate Tom Keller, 56, an advertising salesman in his first bid for office, drew some applause with simplistic answers blatantly agreeing with residents.
When asked how North Greenwood fits into the city’s $55 million waterfront redevelopment plan Imagine Clearwater, Keller answered bluntly: "I’m not sure I see anything that has to do with Greenwood in that plan."
Jzon Livingston Sr., 39, asked why North Greenwood is not included in downtown’s Community Redevelopment Agency’s boundaries, and funding, when it has a defunct business district ripe for revitalization.
"Great point, that makes total sense," Keller said. He later said he found it "completely unacceptable" there were areas of need amid huge investments "on the beaches and downtown."
Seat 5 candidate John Funk, 71, a real estate broker, pledged to make North Greenwood his top priority if elected.
He said he has already started knocking on doors and walking the neighborhood. He joked about changing the neighborhood’s name to "ML-Kingside" because if it had ‘side’ in the name it would get more attention from the city like the Countryside and Morningside areas.
"Without a doubt I think the city has priorities that aren’t lined up the way they should be," Funk said. "The forgotten neighborhoods is why I am walking. ... This is the one that I think needs the most attention. There’s a lot of others that need some but it’s small compared to this."
But some of the forum served as a way for residents to stand and just vent about inequities they feel. Atkinson, the NAACP vice president and moderator, turned to the candidates: "sometimes it’s good to listen and not answer."
The candidates heard residents’ confusion about why there are bulky, ugly speed bumps in North Greenwood when other areas have beautiful, brick speed tables and roundabouts.
When it was over, W.J. Bryant left feeling unimpressed by all four.
"They didn’t answer questions," he said. "They’re politicians."
But Muhammad Abdur-Rahim considered the night the beginning of a paradigm shift. He said it seemed the candidates didn’t expect the community to show up. Not only did residents come, they demanded change.
"As they see, the community did show up and the community had very intelligent questions for them," he said. "Now we need a very intelligent response."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.