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How controversy over a St. Petersburg pregnancy center derailed grants for small businesses

A typically simple vote became a debate over reproductive rights and health care inequity.
St Petersburg Pregnancy Center, 1210 22nd St S, pictured on Wednesday, June 9, 2021.
St Petersburg Pregnancy Center, 1210 22nd St S, pictured on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Jun. 12

ST. PETERSBURG — City council votes to approve small business grants are rarely contentious. But a plan to help southern St. Petersburg businesses renovate stirred emotional and heated debate in recent months.

That’s mainly because a pregnancy center, which pro-choice advocates accused of using unethical antiabortion tactics, was slated to receive a grant. The leader of the center, as well as residents who support it, have said those claims were baseless.

The St. Petersburg Pregnancy Center, also called Next STEPP, received the highest “score” for its application, meaning it was prioritized as a business that fit the criteria to receive funding. But in an April meeting of the City Council, several members said they were disturbed by the idea of granting money to the center.

“I don’t know if anyone in this building has been trapped by an antiabortion pregnancy center but I was when I was 18,” said council member Darden Rice. “It’s scary and it’s cruel and they gaslight you. The young women in our community do not deserve that.”

During the meeting, pro-choice advocates and some city residents urged the council to deny funding to the center — pointing to a resolution previously passed by the city which condemned antiabortion pregnancy centers for using “deceptive and manipulative practices and false information.”

“We cannot support the manipulative, duplicitous, fear-mongering and judgmental practices of antiabortion practices like Next STEPP,” said Elizabeth Baker of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, during the meeting.

That resulted in a unanimous (with one member absent) vote to halt the grant program, giving the council time to reevaluate the eligibility criteria. That meant the status of the 21 applicants, who had originally submitted their applications by early 2020 and already experienced pandemic-related delays, was in limbo.

The South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area commercial matching grant program allows small businesses to be reimbursed for half the cost of their renovations, up to $20,000 in most cases. It is paid for by property taxes collected in the same geographic area where businesses are eligible to receive the grants: roughly from 4th Street S to 49th Street from east to west, and from 2nd Avenue S to 30th Avenue from north to south.

As part of the delay, the 2021 round was cancelled, and those applicants will need to apply again. Had the applications not been canceled, council members could have approved them around August, according to Rick Smith, the city’s community redevelopment area coordinator. Now he’s aiming for December, though he added that businesses that paid for estimates from contractors to complete their applications won’t have to redo them and incur extra costs.

One of these applicants was Gloria Campbell, who owns a small insurance company that previously received a grant through the same program. She was featured by the city in a 2016 video promoting it, saying that remodeling her office space sparked other nearby store owners to make improvements, giving new life to the street.

Now, Campbell, who was seeking money to help install exterior lighting, said she’s frustrated.

“My real issue is the way it was done, the reason the council decided to (delay) it ... and the way they created issues for small businesses that may be have been counting on this money to get renovations done,” she said.

But about a month after halting the program, the council was met with fierce backlash.

During its May 13 meeting, Maria Scruggs, a former St. Petersburg NAACP president and Pinellas County Commission candidate, told the council members that she was “completely caught off guard” by the way the center was characterized, and said she previously held NAACP meetings there. She said the center provides valuable services that help reduce racial inequities in health care, something city leaders have said they want to address.

“I promise that I would have known that there were issues at that center,” she said. “If we talk about issues of equity, one of the major issues that we’ve got to address are the issues related to health. These folks are on the ground doing the work.”

Carole Alexander, the longtime CEO of Next STEPP, said the comments amounted to “an orchestrated attack.”

The center operates under the direction of a licensed physician, she said, and offers free pregnancy tests, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, limited obstetrical ultrasounds, referrals for preventative health exams and other needed services to residents. Other speakers also said the center provides free diapers, clothes and parenting education.

“Almost 70 percent of our participants come from referrals, word-of-mouth from families, friends and other organizations. That speaks volumes,” she said in a later interview. “If we’re these terrible people, all these folks wouldn’t be referring us.”

Related: 'Pregnancy centers' draw scrutiny as lawmakers seek to elevate their status

In general, pregnancy centers, many of which are faith-based, are less regulated than more traditional medical providers and can vary significantly by location.

Some don’t advertise that they hold antiabortion views, hoping to attract pregnant people seeking abortions and then emphasize the risks of the procedure to them. Some falsely claim abstinence is the only form of effective birth control, or tell people that contraceptives cause cancer or infertility.

But Alexander said her center never misleads women and “to characterize us as antiabortion center really eliminates the majority of work that we do.”

“We serve in the community, where the needs are great and they’re not just about pregnancy,” she said. “They’re about helping families who face challenges that are caused by ... inequities in housing, in economics, in health care.”

Related: Florida mothers of color, seeking better care, turn to midwives and doulas

The comments during the meeting prompted a dramatic about-face for the council, in which all but two members voted to put the grant applications, including the pregnancy center’s, back on the agenda for a vote of approval.

That final vote came Thursday, and was unanimous.

During that meeting, council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman apologized to the center.

“I know you’ve been there for over 20 years. I know how many people the pregnancy center has helped,” she said. “I’m pro-choice. A woman has the right to do what she wants with her body. But to take so much time on this issue did not make sense to me.”

Staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.