CLEARWATER — WorkNet Pinellas isn't normally a source of controversy. It's a federally funded agency that gives job training to the unemployed and tries to hook up job seekers with employers.
But the employment office was rejected Tuesday in its attempt to move into a vacant building in the East Gateway district near downtown. The neighbors didn't want it, and they showed up at City Hall to say so.
A city zoning board denied WorkNet's request to move into 1315 Cleveland St., an office building that has sat empty since a fire damaged it in June 2009.
East Gateway residents were opposed to the move because they don't want more unemployed people congregating in an area that already has a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen — both of which are near 1315 Cleveland.
"I understand that this needs to be placed somewhere. I don't think the East Gateway is the right location for it," said Donna Maxa, a member of the East Gateway Business and Neighbors Association. "I know there are other areas in this city where they could go that would not cause as much trouble."
About a dozen East Gateway residents in matching yellow T-shirts attended Tuesday's hearing. They have worked for years to revitalize the neighborhood east of downtown, which houses a number of cheap motels and day labor businesses. They have pushed for tougher police enforcement against public intoxication and prostitution.
Neighbors also complain that the nearby Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project and the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen attract vagrants.
For its part, WorkNet insisted that its proposed new office would not attract loitering vagrants. Job seekers would come to the office by appointment only after they were referred by other agencies.
And unlike WorkNet's other Clearwater office on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, the Cleveland Street office would have no computers or resource room available to the general public. Several East Gateway residents said they've seen homeless people using the agency's computers at the Gulf-to-Bay location.
"Some of the concerns you heard at the Gulf-to-Bay area are not going to happen" at the Cleveland Street location, said WorkNet attorney John Hixenbaugh.
"It would be a benefit to this area to have somebody occupying this building, eliminating a location where the homeless can congregate," said Craig Little, a lawyer for the building's owners.
Still, Clearwater's Community Development Board voted 5-1 to reject WorkNet's relocation to this spot.
Their reason: The city's East Gateway development plan discourages more social service agencies from locating there because several already operate in the district.
City planners believed WorkNet complied with the city's East Gateway plan because it qualified as a "governmental use." However, members of the development board decided that WorkNet appeared to be a social service agency, so under the East Gateway plan it wasn't allowed to set up shop so close to the soup kitchen.
Board members like Frank Dame and Doreen DiPolito said they support WorkNet and appreciate what the agency does, but they had no choice but to follow Clearwater's development codes.
"I've employed people through WorkNet," Dame said. "I struggle with this whole thing."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.