CLEARWATER — An employment agency wants to set up shop in the East Gateway district near downtown, but neighbors are against it because they don't want more unemployed people congregating in an area that already has a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen.
WorkNet Pinellas, a career training center, wants to move into a vacant building at 1315 Cleveland St. It has sat empty since a fire damaged it in June 2009.
Longtime Clearwater residents may remember that the building once housed a Morrison's Cafeteria, which was a fixture there for nearly 30 years until it closed in 1989. After that, it housed a number of businesses. Since last year's fire, it's been just another vacant building along a strip of cheap motels and day labor businesses.
East Gateway community members have worked for years to revitalize the neighborhood east of downtown, partly by demanding tougher police enforcement against public intoxication and prostitution.
Neighbors complain that the nearby CHIP homeless shelter and the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen attract vagrants. That's why several neighbors are strongly opposed to WorkNet setting up an office at this location.
"I can just see a stream of people running from CHIP to the soup kitchen to this facility," East Gateway property owner Gilbert Jannelli said at a recent zoning hearing. "You're bringing people that are unemployed to this area."
Shelley Kuroghlian, a founding member of the grass roots East Gateway Coalition, said, "We are dedicated to the improvement of that area. We put our feet on the ground. We picked up the bottles. We've done this for three years.
"This will not be a repository for every social service venture that the rest of the city doesn't want."
WorkNet provides job training to the unemployed and attempts to hook up job seekers with employers. It has five locations around Pinellas County, including one on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater.
Michele Pineda, its director of planning and development, said the proposed Cleveland Street office would not attract loitering vagrants. The services to be offered there, such as resume writing classes and career counseling, would be "invitation only."
The office probably would serve a couple of hundred clients a day, she said, but they would have to make appointments.
WorkNet Pinellas would occupy two-thirds of the building at 1315 Cleveland. Coordinated Child Care, an agency that helps low-income families afford day care, would move into the remaining third.
The city's Community Development Board would have to approve WorkNet's relocation to this spot because there are questions about whether it fits Clearwater's plans for downtown and the East Gateway.
The city's East Gateway development plan discourages more social service agencies from locating there because several already operate in the district.
City planners initially recommended that the development board approve WorkNet's relocation, partly because it would eliminate the blight caused by a vacant building. They said WorkNet complies with the city's East Gateway plan because it qualifies as a "governmental use."
However, board members questioned whether WorkNet really qualifies as a government agency. WorkNet is organized as a nonprofit corporation that gets federal funding.
They have put the matter on hold for now. City planners are doing further legal research, and the development board will take it up again Jan. 18.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.