GTE Federal Credit Union breaks ground on anotherbranch.
Published Sept. 2, 2009|Updated Sept. 2, 2009

Today, a weed-strewn lot. Tomorrow, a place to build for the future.

As city officials celebrated the arrival of GTE Federal Credit Union to Midtown this week, they wearily acknowledged how long it took to bring the first financial institution to the poorest section of town.

Eight years earlier, Mayor Rick Baker ran on a platform promising to make Midtown part of a "seamless city" where all residents have equal access to services. To an overlooked area about 40 blocks wide and 30 blocks just south of downtown, he promised to bring a major supermarket, a post office, a library and a bank. All would be part of an economic development zone in the heart of Midtown.

In the years that followed, as the first three were completed, the bank stalled. SunTrust bought a piece of property at the southwest corner of 18th Avenue S and 22nd Street, but today that project remains in question.

"We kept knocking them down, but we just couldn't get this one done," Baker said during a Monday groundbreaking ceremony. Referring to the credit union, he added, "If they hadn't stepped in, I don't know that we'd be here today."

City officials pulled considerable strings to bring the Tampa-based credit union here just months before Baker leaves office. GTE, in a deal in which it pays $1 for the land, will build its second St. Petersburg branch at the southeast corner of the intersection, across the street from a Sweetbay Supermarket that went up in 2004. Construction is expected to be completed by year's end.

SunTrust paid $500,000 for its lot, which remains empty today, save for a company sign. A spokesperson for the company could not be reached for comment.

The GTE project quickly took on steam once another developer's plans for a gas station and a fast food restaurant on the site fell apart, said Mike Psarakis, the city's senior real estate coordinator.

According to the contract with the city, GTE must build a 3,000-square foot branch and remain in business on the site for 50 years before the city hands over the deed. If GTE pulls out before 30 years, it must pay $700,000, what the city paid for a strip that included homes, a gas station and pool hall years ago. If GTE leaves in 40 years, it pays the city $350,000.

The city will also prepare the property and sidewalk for construction with a $225,000 economic development grant.

"If they meet all the conditions of the contract, they will eventually own the property," said Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis III, who oversees economic development in Midtown.

For the credit union, the deal made sense not only because GTE has only one other location in the city, at 4584 38th Ave. N, but also because it is eyeing a potential new customer pool in an area where the bank is sometimes beneath the mattress.

"We are going to have a tremendous impact in the neighborhood," said Stephen Foster, vice president of real estate.

Through the city's Bank on St. Pete program, which brings financial literacy education to residents, Davis sees collaborations between GTE and neighboring schools that teach children about saving early.

"What this does for people is it gets them on the first rung on the ladder," said City Council member Karl Nurse, who represents the area.

To be sure, the city has made substantial inroads in Midtown during Baker's tenure, even as crime continues to be a problem. Early critics of Baker's efforts, such as City Council member Wengay Newton, who grew up in the area, celebrated those successes at the groundbreaking.

Across the street from the credit union, Sweetbay anchors the Tangerine Plaza shopping complex. Further up 22nd Street, the relics from the strip's heyday as a black business mecca have been renovated. They include the Manhattan Casino, the Royal Theatre and the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad Station, converted into the St. Petersburg Clay Co.

The city also cites the Davis-Bradley drug treatment center, the restoration of Mercy Hospital, the opening of the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center, restoration of Lake Maggiore and sprucing up of Dell Holmes Park as successes.

Said Baker: "I know that we have not gotten all the way there yet and that there is still work to be done."

Luis Perez can be reached at or (727) 892-2271.

Bank or credit union?

- Banks and credit unions offers similar services, like checking and savings accounts, loans and credit cards. A bank, however, is a private entity, while a credit union is a not-for-profit organization. In a bank, profits go to shareholders. At a credit union, where members are owners, profits stay in the company. Since credit unions are exempt from taxes, members may enjoy higher dividends and lower interest rates. Both institutions insure deposits.

- Credit unions typically restrict their membership pool to employers or postal ZIP codes. In the case of GTE Federal Credit Union, all St. Petersburg residents can apply for membership.