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It's slow going on 49th Street

(ran Beach, East, South, Seminole editions)

The 49th Street Redevelopment Project has reached a roadblock.

"The main source of funds has been the Florida Department of Transportation, and because of state budget limitations some of these projects are being put off," said Susanne Hicks, Gulfport's principal planner.

Last week the city broke ground for the new Neighborhood Center, 1617 49th St. S, which will include a police substation, multipurpose room and code enforcement offices. A $400,000 Community Development Block Grant is paying for a good deal of the work. For now, that is the last project on the drawing board.

"I don't know right now when money will be available," Hicks said.

A makeover of the city's eastern corridor gained traction in the late 1990s. Safety, adequate parking and beautification were the top-ranked concerns when the Economic Development Advisory Committee polled businesses and residents.

A round of public workshops then elicited ideas for a streetscape design and for developing the Bay Machine property, which the city acquired in 2000 for $315,000.

A few months ago, the city landscaped two blocks of 49th Street, from Tangerine Avenue to 20th Avenue S, spending $125,000 in DOT money. Hicks said there are 16 blocks to go.

"We didn't like to go in and do it piecemeal," Hicks said. "We really had hoped to do the whole street, but since we had that money maybe it was a way to jump-start the project and get it going at least."

Perhaps inspired by the activity, property owners in those blocks have cleaned up their places, and two applied for grant money to improve the outside of their buildings. And the city of St. Petersburg, whose western border meets Gulfport at the center line of 49th, is drawing up plans for its side of the street.

John Grundon, the owner of Safety Tire, at 1833 49th St. S, received $6,000 in facade grant money and spent another $29,000 improving his property and bringing it up to code.

"I had been thinking about it for a long time and with the money Gulfport spent . . . and with the grant money, it was the time to do it," Grundon said.

More than a month ago, Gulfport and St. Petersburg officials walked the corridor to see what Gulfport accomplished and what could be done on the St. Petersburg side.

Mike Dove, deputy mayor overseeing neighborhoods, said oak trees and palm trees most likely will be planted to match those on the Gulfport side.

St. Petersburg budgeted no money for improving 49th Street, but Dove said that once landscape architects' plans are done and cost estimates are in, they will look for funding.

One potential source, Neighborhood Partnership Grants, would require the consent of the two neighborhoods bordering the streets.

Twin Brooks had already started on its grant application a couple of months ago. Association president James B. "Randy" Lewis said beautification along 49th Street, crime reduction and code enforcement are among the neighborhood's top five goals.

Childs Park association president Armanda Lampley said the neighborhood has had a plan for 12 years and that beautifying 49th is part of it. Lampley said she suggested to St. Petersburg two years ago that the time was right for beautification as Gulfport was making plans for its side of the street.

Dove said another necessary ingredient to redevelop the corridor is cooperation of business owners, who will be responsible for maintaining the landscaping on their side of 49th.

Twin Brooks' Lewis said that only one business owner regularly attends association meetings. Some 49th Street businesses are members of the Gulfport Chamber of Commerce, according to chamber co-president Dolly Tickell.

She also said a Gulfport address is not a requirement for membership. The chamber recently hired a new executive director, and Tickell said reaching out to those businesses will be one of his objectives.

Besides funding, there may be another pothole in the renaissance of 49th Street: the properties themselves.

Gulfport's Hicks said that when an owner wants to improve a property and goes through the site plan review process, the building must meet current codes for handicap accessibility, parking and landscaping. The cost involved "puts a crimp on a new owner who wants to redevelop it and use it for retail."

Hicks said she gets a couple of calls a week from people interested in the 49th Street corridor, but she said vacancy has held steady for the past 1{ years.

It may take an investor willing to piece properties together and tear down what is there to complete the redevelopment of 49th Street, Hicks said.

"I don't like to put it to them that way, but I think at least in some places on 49th the properties are so small, that's probably what will happen."