ST. PETERSBURG — The District 5 City Council race unofficially launched at a Monday night forum with five of the six candidates fielding questions on major city issues like affordable housing and the fate of the Tropicana Field site.
About 50 people went to the forum, held at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center, technically in the city's sixth council district. Candidates Deborah Figgs-Sanders, 54; Anne Hirsch, 61; Philip Garrett, 54; Trenia Cox, 68; and Beth Connor, 54, fielded questions from the Rev. J.C. Pritchett, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. Anthony Cates III, 29, who Pritchett said was invited, did not attend.
Garrett, who sells real estate and is a former Hillsborough County Property Appraiser employee, previously ran for the seat in 2015, falling to incumbent Steve Kornell, who is now term limited. Garrett filed to run for the seat on on June 7.
The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 27. If no one garners the majority of the votes, the top two candidates will head to a run-off in November.
The candidates all tried to distinguish themselves as the most qualified and dedicated, touting their activism, professional knowledge, community service and years spent living in the city. Many painted a picture of "a city divided" to the mostly black audience, juxtaposing the vibrancy of and attention lavished upon downtown, and its whiteness, against what they described as the forgotten and bypassed racially mixed south side.
"Our city has a number of things to be proud of," said Figgs-Sanders, a member of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area Citizen Advisory Committee and former executive director of the Childs Park YMCA. "Now is the time to balance the economic development with the growth in districts that need it the most."
Hirsch, a midwife who is affiliated with the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, put it more bluntly: "When you cross the divide at Central Avenue, you find poverty and devastation."
The theme carried through to the questions, with topics addressing issues felt most prominently by the black community.
There was general support for the St. Petersburg Police Department adopting body cameras, which police and city leaders have been reluctant to do. Cox cautioned while they are a tool, they will not cure all problems between the black community and the police. Garrett and Hirsch advocated for more aggressive police reform.
The second question addressed the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site, which the Tampa Bay Rays may choose to vacate or choose to build another stadium. All the candidates harked back to the promises of development and revitalization made when the city razed the Gas Plant district to build the baseball stadium — promises that largely haven't materialized.
"We cannot risk double victimization," said Cox, who worked as an urban planner for the city of St. Petersburg and spent nearly 20 years as a manager at the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County. "If south side and black residents stay quiet, the property "will be used as an extension of downtown."
She added: "This is not a time to be asleep at the switch. This is a golden opportunity."
Garrett had his strongest moments when talking about tax-increment financing, the economic model behind the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area. He explained that in order for the model to make money to reinvest into the community, property values have to rise. That means housing becomes more expensive for those who live there. Instead, he said the solution is job training, so the next generation can afford those homes.
"Our youth need careers," he said. "They don't need jobs."
Hirsch agreed, calling the Community Redevelopment Area a "codeword for gentrication."
"It requires that people have money," she said, targeting the matching grants that are available to homeowners and businesses. "It requires that people have credit."
The final topic candidates addressed was affordable housing and homelessness. All five candidates expressed urgency, calling the state of affordability a "crisis."
Cox and Figgs-Sanders focused on density, saying zoning and land use regulations need to be loosened so multifamily housing is easier to build.
Connor, a paralegal and environmental activist, said she was grateful the St. Petersburg Housing Authority was receiving scrutiny.
"The people on the waiting list at the Housing Authority have been waiting way too long," she said.
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.