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St. Petersburg has a fruitful year in Tallahassee

Published May 4, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Art O'Hara didn't have any expectations last fall when he asked legislators if they would help him get $122,500 to expand the Louise Graham Regeneration Center, a local nonprofit that gives developmentally disabled adults jobs in the recycling industry.

"I thought (my chances) were pretty slim, considering we really didn't know what the state budget looked like," said O'Hara, the center's executive director. "But I thought if we don't ask, we won't get it."

Barring the swipe of Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen in coming weeks, O'Hara will get exactly what he wanted. As will many other St. Petersburg projects.

For the first time in a long time, legislators packed $16.8 million for hometown projects into the state budget, part of a largesse of funding headed to the Tampa Bay area.

After several years of recession, there was a surplus this year that made the timing ripe for new requests.

Some attribute St. Petersburg's windfall to new Mayor Rick Kriseman, who jokingly called this year his "best session ever" even though he's no longer in the Legislature.

During a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board last week, Kriseman touted the fact that unlike his predecessor, he had no problem leaning on his former Tallahassee colleagues.

Bill Foster made only a couple of trips to the Florida Capitol during his four years as mayor.

Kriseman went twice this spring to advocate for projects like the antipoverty 2020 Plan (which stands to get $1.625 million), and a new business college building for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg ($10 million).

He also hired Sally Everett to be the city's lobbyist, a position that Foster cut.

"The city of St. Petersburg was well served by the mayor's past experience in the Legislature … and the relationships he built during his time," Everett said Friday. "I think that goodwill is reflected in the many programs that were approved."

Other St. Petersburg projects slated to get money include marine science labs and classrooms at St. Petersburg College ($2.5 million); renovations to the historic Ponder House ($100,000); kitchen upgrades and other improvements at the Mahaffey Theater ($500,000); and $2 million for the All Children's Hospital/Johns Hopkins Pediatric Research Zone.

Dr. Jonathan Ellen, president of All Children's, said the state money will help the hospital expand into cancer and genetic research, attracting high-paying jobs for scientists and medical professionals.

"I'm very pleased by what we have in the budget right now. I think it's been very successful for our community," Kriseman said Friday. "I really feel like it's a real advantage to have someone who understands the process."

Still, Kriseman, said, he didn't do it alone.

He said he stayed in frequent contact with state Reps. Kathleen Peters, Darryl Rouson and Ed Hooper and Sens. Jack Latvala and Jeff Brandes about the St. Petersburg projects in play.

Sophia Wisniewska, regional chancellor of USF St. Petersburg, said the collaboration of the mayor, city and Pinellas legislators around the college's request was "energizing."

"There were so many different efforts taking place that it created a lot of synergy," she said.

If the money ultimately comes through, the university will be able to break ground on its the new building by year's end.

Elsewhere in Pinellas, lawmakers secured $1.27 million for a BMX supercross track in Oldsmar, $500,000 for improvements to the cultural center in Largo, and $2 million to build a new aquarium in Clearwater.

O'Hara's request, made in October to the county delegation, will allow the Louise Graham Regeneration Center to expand its paper-shredding and recycling operation, which provides jobs for about 25 disabled adults.

"We have some very capable legislators," O'Hara said. "I think they really try to do what's right and make sense."

The center shreds about 90,000 pounds of paper each month, and customers are added each day, O'Hara said. The state money would allow the organization to buy two more trucks and add workers.

"We need this shot in the arm," O'Hara said.

Kameel Stanley can be reached at or (727) 893-8643. Follow on Twitter @cornandpotatoes.