CLEARWATER — A Tallahassee judge has overruled the city's decision to block an employment agency from opening a new local branch, saying the rejection was based on fear and misconceptions.
WorkNet Pinellas asked for approval last year to move into a vacant building in the East Gateway neighborhood, where job seekers could find career counseling and resume-writing classes by invitation only.
City officials supported the plan. But East Gateway residents rallied against it, worried that it would attract more vagrants into a neighborhood notorious for day-labor firms and seedy motels.
A city zoning board in February voted to reject WorkNet's plan, saying the neighborhood already had too many social-service agencies, including a soup kitchen and a now-closed homeless shelter and day center.
But after an appeal by WorkNet and property owner Nemishawn Inc., Administrative Law Judge J. Lawrence Johnston has reversed the board's "unreasonable" ruling.
The branch at 1315 Cleveland St. would serve as a governmental agency, which is allowed in the city's neighborhood plan, Johnston wrote in a final order. The Community Development Board had disagreed with that classification without explaining why.
The board's rejection, Johnston wrote, hinged less on facts and more on neighborhood fear and speculation. Both were "in large part based on misunderstandings."
The board's attorney, Gina Grimes, said members could discuss filing an appeal to the Circuit Court at its meeting next Tuesday. Member Doreen DiPolito said the board was advised not to discuss the pending litigation.
Two East Gateway property owners who spoke out against the plan, Donna Maxa and Gilbert Jannelli, also have the right to appeal. Maxa, who owns Maxa Enterprises, a nearby court-reporting business, said she couldn't afford the litigation.
WorkNet spokesman Bill Griffiths said the agency would wait for any further appeals before pushing forward with the project.
Worknet has said the branch would have no public resource rooms or walk-in services in an effort to attract fewer vagrants. A third of the building would hold Coordinated Child Care, a not-for-profit that helps low-income families afford day care.
Federally funded, WorkNet Pinellas was created in 2001 as one of the state's two dozen local workforce boards. The agency offers training, job fairs and help for veterans from two Clearwater offices, on Barry Street and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
Maryce Garber, who owns a home in the East Gateway, said the judge's ruling would further solidify her neighborhood as "a mecca for the downtrodden."
"We take two steps forward and three backward," Garber said. "We want nice shops, nice houses to live in. Not people lying on the street with a wine bottle in their hands."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.