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City Council approves programs to fight poverty, boost economic development

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council on Thursday devoted $30,000 to help the Chamber of Commerce develop a plan for future economic development.

It gave $50,000 toward the creation of a new Skyway Marina District to better brand the area along 34th Street S.

And the Pinellas County Urban League received $74,000 for a pilot program intended to help dozens of families rise out of poverty.

Individually, each allocation may not seem unusual in the vast landscape of government projects.

Collectively, they signified the first mile marker for the new administration and council, which promised big action on big issues like getting people more jobs, reducing poverty and revitalizing neighborhoods.

"This is a very, very important day," said council member Charlie Gerdes. "We're going from talking the talk to walking the walk."

The council gave unanimous approval to all three projects, which will be funded with money set aside last September during the budget process.

The Urban League project received the most cash, but also was the most debated.

Council member Jim Kennedy said he was uneasy about the money now being used for a short-term pilot program instead of grant writing and planning for a larger effort as originally proposed.

He also revived his concern that the city has let reserves slip. At some point, he said, officials are going to have show "fiscal discipline."

"I feel as if somebody needs to be ringing the bell," he said.

Urban League president Watson Haynes said program organizers pivoted their focus based on feedback from council members.

At a workshop last week, council member Steve Kornell said he was interested in getting started sooner rather than later with direct services.

The Urban League program will help low-income parents get better paying jobs or work training over the next several months. Some of the money also will be used to train staff and get curriculum materials for future programs.

In the meantime, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said, the administration has committed to work on the resource development and grant-writing portion of the larger "2020" community plan, a broad effort to reduce poverty by 30 percent.

The pilot program may prove more helpful in grant applications anyway, Haynes and others said.

Council member Karl Nurse said he was frustrated about the skepticism.

"It does upset me that as we go through the process that the greatest struggle is to fund the poorest neighborhoods," he said. "It's always like this. And I really don't understand it."

The chamber project did not encounter such resistance.

Chamber president Chris Steinocher said the city lacks any sort of formal and broad economic development strategy.

The chamber's six-month study will be run by Market Street Services, a national consulting firm that worked with cities like Nashville and Austin.

The study will cost $120,000, with the city contributing $30,000 and the private sector picking up the rest.

St. Petersburg has been lucky to see a recent renaissance with its arts and beer scene, Steinocher said.

"If we don't get more people to buy the beer and buy the art, we don't have a sustainable model," he said. "We want to grow more pennies for everybody."

Similarly, officials said they hope funding the new Skyway Marina District plan will spur economic development along the southern half of 34th Street.

Like the other projects, it has been in the works for months. Some city leaders said they feared without action, momentum would stall.

Nurse said governments have a hard time with long-term thinking.

"This is a good first step," he said. "But it's important to remember this is the first step."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com, (727) 893-8643 or @cornandpotatoes on Twitter.

City Council approves programs to fight poverty, boost economic development 02/06/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 6, 2014 11:52pm]
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