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Formed to uplift areas, Front Porch sags

Five years ago, Gov. Jeb Bush unveiled his "Front Porch" community revitalization program during a campaign stop here, saying he would establish it in 20 communities throughout the state.

But as Front Porch expands elsewhere, its future appears uncertain in St. Petersburg.

The program, which places decisions about economic revitalization in the hands of local residents, is at a crossroads:

+ The state cut its funding to $25,000 a year, a quarter of what it was two years ago and barely enough to keep its local office open.

+ An audit found that members of the local Front Porch council had violated state conflict-of-interest rules on at least three occasions in the last year.

+ Interest in the program in St. Petersburg has waned, with no more than five people attending the local council's monthly meetings.

"I believe there is still a very strong potential for St. Petersburg to be successful, but it's just a matter of time before that is apparent," said Alison Hewitt, director of the Office of Urban Opportunity, which runs Gov. Bush's Front Porch program. "These older communities have now graduated, and so the amount of money they receive has decreased."

The state is trying to nudge the oldest six Front Porch communities out on their own, to eliminate their reliance on state funding for the types of projects they've done in the past, such as health screenings, landscaping and auto repair training.

The senior Front Porch communities are supposed to survive now by seeking money from business partners and county and city governments, by finding grants wherever they can.

But the local Front Porch council has only recently begun focusing on developing these partnerships.

"We have partnerships, but not any that can provide us with the kind of financial influx into our budget," said Elder Martin Rainey, chairman of the Governor's Revitalization Council of South St. Petersburg.

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Front Porch, a program first mentioned by the governor during his bid for state office, was Bush's effort to make government listen to local residents about the needs of the community, rather than the other way around. When it first began four years ago, though, the effort was marked by infighting, poor communication, state inefficiency and improper handling of state dollars.

Now the council gets along better, but sometimes it still doesn't handle state money correctly.

In May, the state audited the St. Petersburg program and found that council members had violated the state's conflict-of-interest rules three times in the past year.

Though minor, the incidents show that those on the council can sometimes have both a financial and community interest in being at the Front Porch table.

For example, Kiambu Mudada, director of a 10-bed substance abuse home for ex-offenders called Our Brother's Keeper, is chairman of the Council's Crime and Safety Committee that considered a $2,500 grant for his organization last year. Though he did not actually vote to award the grant to his organization, he did make a recommendation to the full council to accept the committee's recommendation, a violation of state rules, the audit said.

Our Brother's Keeper received three other grants in 2002 totaling some $20,000. It received another $10,000 in 2001.

"It was not a conflict at all," Mudada said. "As the committee chair, I gave a committee report and I shouldn't have given it. Keep in mind, the council has always supported Our Brother's Keeper."

In the May 14 audit, the state recommended that the group create a committee independent of the council to help select projects. Rainey said the council had done that, though he pointed out there are no new grants coming in.

The $25,000 from the state will go toward keeping the Front Porch Council office on 16th Street S open.

Rainey has been making the rounds with city and county officials, pitching a five-point plan to keep Front Porch alive now that the state's financial support is drying up.

"I'm letting them know that Front Porch is moving to another level and looking at being sustainable on our own," Rainey said.

The group has asked for a $20,000 grant from the city and county for an administrative assistant to keep its office running.

This past year, the local group lost out on a $225,000 grant awarded by the Department of Education for literacy and computer technology because of government delays and a requirement to spend the grant within a certain time period, said Lolita Dash, St. Petersburg's state-paid community liaison. It is not clear who is at fault for the delays; local officials said they got their paperwork in on time.

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The local Front Porch council has received about $250,000 from the state over the past three years. The money has gone toward summer camps, a community garden, literacy programs, GED classes, career planning, senior citizen support, neighborhood cleanups and home repairs.

But not much has been spent on economic development. Just two Front Porch grants since 2001 have been given out in this category: $6,000 for a business information seminar and $10,000 for an auto repair training project, according to the Front Porch office.

"I think the council had steered away from economic development, and that was the whole intent," said Dash, the community liaison. "What they were looking at when they brought Front Porch down here was for more jobs, livable wages, an opportunity to invest in the community. But the council went toward social funding and social programs. But now economic development is the top priority."

Front Porch also needs to figure out if it wants to provide some sort of service itself or help groups that already provide a service get funding, Dash said.

Rodney Bennett, who represents the Campbell Park Neighborhood Association on the Front Porch council, said he was not opposed to the group's seeking grants to provide specific services.

"At the same time, you need to understand that if you're going to be a provider of service and go after grants, you begin to become a group that is competing against the community that you are here to address," Bennett said.