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St. Petersburg's CRA grants may be tweaked … but not for a while

ST. PETERSBURG — The first year was a little bumpy for the first round of grants dispensed by the city's newly formed South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area.

So the City Council wants to make sure there's more transparency and public comment before the next round of grants go out next year.

To that end, the council voted unanimously recently to implement ideas by council members Darden Rice and Ed Montanari to fulfill those goals.

Mayor Rick Kriseman announced Aug. 11 that about $319,000 in tax-increment finance district grants would go to business owners to spruce up their properties. But some residents and leaders in the predominantly black neighborhoods that make up most of the CRA criticized the selection process.

Maria Scruggs, president of the NAACP's local chapter, criticized the CRA structure, saying that it was not planned well.

She also said the grants are a pot of money that could be used to curry political support to help the mayor get re-elected in 2017.

"The notion that sustained redevelopment and socioeconomic empowerment can be achieved by a grant program is preposterous," Scruggs said.

The mayor's office has said the grants are intended to improve the physical condition of major corridors within the district in the hope of luring private investment.

Scruggs is board chairwoman of Happy Workers, a day care business that received an $11,042 grant. But despite benefiting from the program, she said she can't support it.

She raised a question that other Midtown leaders have also broached in the past year: Why not redraw the boundary of the CRA to include Tropicana Field, whose redevelopment is likely to bring up to $1 billion in property tax value — future revenues that could substantially benefit the South St. Petersburg CRA.

City officials have said repeatedly that the Trop is already in another CRA and it would be logistically difficult to redraw the boundaries. That process that would have to approved by the county.

The grants didn't just raise questions about the overall design of the CRA. The smallest grant actually prompted the greatest public outcry.

A $531 grant went to the Pinellas County Democratic Party for landscaping to its building at 2250 First Ave N. The party later said it wouldn't accept the grant.

"It's been a rough week," council member Steve Kornell said at the Aug. 25 council meeting.

Critics also took aim at this aspect of the CRA: More than a third of the 32 grants went to businesses in the blooming Kenwood and Grand Central neighborhoods.

The CRA's mission needs to be better communicated, Montanari said.

"I'm not sure the goals were clear and they need to be clarified," he said.

Rice said getting more eyes on where the money goes and more people involved in the decision-making process will help avoid future stumbles.

"When you have a group that is completely similar with the same blind spots," she said, "you end up unfortunately creating unnecessary distractions over $500 in landscaping."

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said a citizen advisory committee reviewed the grants. But she acknowledged that the city staff recommended the winners, which were picked by Kriseman's office.

In recent weeks, the city has released a series of short videos of grant winners extolling the benefits of the CRA grants. But city officials say they're open to changes.

Rick Smith, the CRA's coordinator, told council members last month that the city is mulling whether to give the advisory committee more power in awarding grants.

The council approved the grants last month. Only Montanari opposed the motion.

Kriseman supports greater transparency and citizen participation, Tomalin said at the council meeting.

"I really want to make a point that we share that goal," the deputy mayor said. "We can make everything stronger."

Next year, an estimated $1.2 million in tax-increment financing grants will be available through the CRA.

The council plans to discuss specific tweaks at a committee meeting that comprises all eight council members — but it might take a while.

The committee — dubbed the "Committee of the Whole" — is scheduled to discuss other subjects through October. So the issue may not get a hearing until 2017.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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