Midtown transformation ambles along as Baker era ebbs

The Manhattan Casino, a historic African-American community center at 642 22nd St. S, has been vacant since the city spent at least $2-million renovating it three years ago. The city bought it in 2001 for $395,000. Mayor Rick Baker hopes to secure a tenant soon.

SCOTT KEELER | Times (2007)\uFEFF

The Manhattan Casino, a historic African-American community center at 642 22nd St. S, has been vacant since the city spent at least $2-million renovating it three years ago. The city bought it in 2001 for $395,000. Mayor Rick Baker hopes to secure a tenant soon.

ST. PETERSBURG — Arnold Wilson crisscrosses Pinellas County delivering air conditioners every week, but he doesn't need a map to tell him where Midtown begins and the rest of the city ends.

The rows of vacant storefronts, litter-trashed streets and small crowds of men playing cards and drinking liquor in empty lots are a dead giveaway.

"It's a lot cleaner over there," he said of the neighborhoods he passes as he drives back to Midtown after a hard day of work. "You can see the difference."

Mayor Rick Baker's ambitious plan to transform some of the city's poorest, predominately black neighborhoods has earned him national accolades and raised new hopes in a community often ignored by his predecessors.

But even Baker acknowledges he has a ways to go before reaching the goal he set for himself in the earliest days of his administration: create a seamless St. Petersburg where residents enjoy an equal standard of living regardless of where they live.

"It's not perfect; it's not where I want it to be," said Baker, who leaves office because of term limits in 14 months. "But we are getting there."

Baker established Midtown as a priority early in his administration, tapping retiring Police Chief Goliath Davis to lead the effort.

"I want to make it like other areas in the city so that you don't have a high unemployment rate or a high crime rate or property in disrepair," Baker said in 2001.

During his seven years in office, Baker has poured at least $54-million into Midtown, a mishmash of local, state and federal funding that went toward new recreation centers, infrastructure improvements and housing programs.

He oversaw the creation of the area's only library, supermarket and full-service post office. Under Baker's watch, seven new shopping plazas opened in Midtown, including Tangerine Plaza, where the Sweetbay Supermarket created 85 jobs.

"He has lived up to every promise," said Johnnie B. Mack, a lifelong Midtown resident. "I just wish he had another seven years to be here."

But Baker has a mixed record on the issues most pressing to some Midtown residents: crime, job creation and property values.

The Midtown crime rate has improved only slightly under Baker. In 2001, there were 3,839 serious crimes in Midtown — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft. In 2007, that number dropped by only 28 crimes, or a 0.7 percent decrease. Meanwhile, those same crimes citywide have dropped by 9 percent under Baker.

The city doesn't keep track of Midtown's unemployment rate, but Baker said his economic development initiatives have created new jobs.

When Euro-Bake threatened to move to Manatee County after its owners couldn't find enough space to expand, Baker's staff helped the wholesale German bakery acquire land.

"If it weren't for the city, we wouldn't be here today," said Mike Gerhard, director of operations. Neither would the company's 140 jobs.

But Midtown's business corridors are struggling.

Catherine Weaver, president of the 16th Street Business Association, said at least 20 businesses have closed in the past two years because of rising property taxes or rent. Weaver, who owns an art gallery and the nonprofit International Association of Young Enterprisers Inc., said she hasn't even been able to pay her electricity bill in two months.

"He is putting a Band-Aid on things," she said. "The city comes in for the grand opening and they support you and say welcome to the community, but after that they just leave you. There is no money to help out people in hard times, and so they just go out of business."

Midtown is home to 54 percent of the city's 380 vacant and boarded-up structures, compared to 70 percent in 2001, the year Baker became mayor.

Baker said he will use a $9.4-million federal housing grant to buy vacant homes in Midtown, where the city's foreclosure crisis has struck the hardest.

It's unclear whether other promises will be met.

The Manhattan Casino, a historic African-American community center, has been vacant since the city renovated it three years ago. Baker said he hopes to secure a tenant soon.

Baker also said he hopes to bring a SunTrust Bank and gas station to the area soon, despite the national economic slump.

SunTrust officials say they aren't sure whether they will be able to open the branch before Baker leaves office.

"You just have to press as hard as you can and keep moving," he said.

Midtown transformation ambles along as Baker era ebbs 10/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 2:33pm]

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