PINELLAS PARK — When city officials couldn't find anyone to build two houses in their redevelopment area, they decided to try something a bit different by asking students to do most of the work.
The result, they say, is a community project that will benefit the students, the city and the neighborhood and will hopefully spark business investment in Pinellas Park's redevelopment area. And they won't have to spend a lot of tax dollars to get it done. Thus far, the city has paid only $36,000 for the project.
"It's been kind of a multifaceted thing," city spokesman Tim Caddell said. "It's making it into something that's positive for the community."
The work is being done at 5721 and 5741 75th Ave. N, a block off Park Boulevard in the "United Cottages" section of the city. When they're finished, Pinellas Park hopes to rent or sell them to business owners. They will be configured so that a small business could be run on the ground floor while the owner lives upstairs, although Caddell said it's not likely the city will require that a renter or buyer both live and work on the premises.
"The idea is that, hopefully, it will become a contagious thing" and others will follow the city's lead in redeveloping other lots, Caddell said.
Pinellas Park has long dreamed of revamping the United Cottages area, a block-long strip with small houses on tiny lots, two of which are owned by the city. Each lot is only about 0.04 acre — about 1,700 square feet of land. Council member Rick Butler suggested creating a village-style area where shoppers could wander from one mom-and-pop type store to another while enjoying ice cream cones or cupcakes made in one of the shops.
Although the idea had support, it didn't gain traction until 2011 when one of the Pinellas Park police officers assigned to the redevelopment area organized the homeowners. The City Council approved plans for rejuvenating the area, agreed to pave the road with brick and put utility wires underground. The plans allowed waivers of rules that apply elsewhere in the city — such as lot size requirements — so the property could be redeveloped. Pinellas Park was given two lots.
Officials thought the lots, which are adjacent, would be a perfect way to come up with something unique and show what a bit of creativity could accomplish. It set aside $200,000 for the project and advertised for bids. The winning bidder backed out so Pinellas Park again advertised for bids. This time, the city got no takers.
After a bit of brainstorming, City Manager Mike Gustafson decided to form a coalition to get the houses built. The city contacted Terry England of England Brothers Construction Co. in Largo and the Public Works Academy at the Pinellas Technical Education Centers' campus in St. Petersburg.
England and his company built and donated the band shell north of City Hall, 5141 78th Ave. N, to Pinellas Park. The city has named that park after the company. This time, England agreed to donate his time to be the contractor of record for the United Cottages project and make sure the work is done properly.
"I felt strongly about supporting on-the-job training," England said.
PTEC officials were equally enthusiastic about giving their students a "real world experience" and to have them do something for the community, said Rohland Bryant, training director for the Public Works Academy.
"It's a fantastic opportunity both for the city of Pinellas Park and for PTEC," Bryant said.
Students not only get the concrete experience, they get class credit for the work and fulfill the requirement that they do some sort of community work.
The students are all ages and experience levels. They are rotated through the site depending on what's needed. Carpentry students report when carpentry work needs to be done. Electrical students are called in when it's time to do that work.
Billy Newton of Largo was one of the carpentry students working to get the walls up last week. He spent eight years in the Army and had two tours of Iraq and now wants to do construction work.
"It's definitely an eye-opener," Newton, 29, said of the experience.
Newton said he'd worked hard in the Army, but the daylong labor in the hot Florida sun was even harder.
"You can't be a slouch and do this job," Newton said.
England said he has been impressed so far by the quality of work. The lots may be "substandard" because of their small size, he said, but "the buildings are not going to be substandard, that's for sure."
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.