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Business group chides city over criticism

St. Petersburg city officials need St. Petersburg Progress and ought not to publicly criticize the civic organization. That is the message of a critical, two-page letter sent to the mayor from the president-elect of the influential civic group of 75 business leaders.

The letter from David H. Wilbanks refers to a $100,000 contract between the city and the group. St. Petersburg Progress is supposed to jump start a pilot housing project with the money. Recently, the contract has come under scrutiny and questions have arisen about St. Petersburg Progress' effectiveness in completing the project.

Wilbanks' letter, dated May 28, says he is "disturbed greatly by the recent tone" of communication between St. Petersburg Progress and the city, and by published comments about the contract.

"I don't know where he's coming from," Mayor David Fischer said.

Fischer said Wilbanks might be referring to published comments that City Council members might not want to continue paying St. Petersburg Progress $100,000 a year to redevelop housing when the city has its own housing department.

Fischer sent a letter to Wilbanks saying that the city has yet to see a funding request from St. Petersburg Progress.

"We have really set the budget," Fischer said Friday. "We're a city that's trimming back and it would be very hard for us to justify the St. Petersburg Progress contract."

Wilbanks, who could not be reached for comment Friday, said in his letter that the city should continue supporting St. Petersburg Progress.

"I'm quite sure you and the council are pressed to spend the taxpayers' dollars wisely, but to consider severing ties with an organization that has been the conduit for private resources, both financial and human, would seem rather foolish and will do damage to the trust, cooperation and commonality of vision that has been established over the past decade," the letter said.

The letter is an attempt by St. Petersburg Progress to defend its turf, Fischer said.

"Here's a gentleman who is defending what he believes in and that's what he's supposed to do," Fischer said. "I'm never offended by that."

_ ALICIA CALDWELL

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