ST. PETERSBURG — The predominantly black, high-poverty neighborhoods south of Central Avenue have long attracted politicians courting voters with plans to turn them around.
Improving the neighborhoods he dubbed Midtown was key to former Mayor Rick Baker's vision in 2001 of a "Seamless City" where persistent racial and economic inequities would melt away. Thirteen years later, newly elected Mayor Rick Kriseman promised to fight poverty across the region "South of Central" Avenue.
Both mayors won the area by wide margins and now are vying again for its support.
As Baker, Kriseman and four other mayoral hopefuls head for an Aug. 29 primary, the Tampa Bay Times set out to assess the region's progress since the turn of the century, analyzing two decades worth of data on income, housing, demographics and crime.
There wasn't much progress to be found.
Though the city has helped steer hundreds of millions of dollars into the neighborhoods around Midtown since 1999, they remain stuck in poverty.
Adjusted for inflation, the average household's income has gone down.
Property values in the neighborhoods have dropped. Only 43 percent of homes in Midtown and Childs Park are owner-occupied, a rate that's steadily declined since it was 60 percent in 2002.
Today, almost half of the region's renters spend the majority of their income keeping a roof over their heads — nearly twice as many as in 1999.
There have been some modest gains. More people have a high school diploma or its equivalent, up from 60 percent in 1999 to about 75 percent today.
Crime rates have dropped as well, mirroring the trend across the city, state and country. But many of St. Petersburg's most violent neighborhoods remain in Midtown.
Other symbolic victories have vanished. Midtown's only grocery store, which opened in 2005 and was hailed by city leaders as a major quality of life improvement, closed for the second time in February. A few months earlier, the same thing happened to a soul food restaurant opened on the former site of the area's iconic nightclub.
In interviews with the Times, both Kriseman and Baker doubled down on their oft-opposing strategies in the region.
Kriseman says his goal is to push more resources toward individuals rather than brick-and-mortar developments, even though that may take years to bear fruit.
"If you're doing it the same way every year and nothing is changing, then why are you continuing to do it that way?" he said. "I worry that we'll just go back and start doing what we're doing before, and nothing's going to change."
Baker said his strategy of building and revitalizing institutions works, promoting education and job growth.
"There will always be more work to be done," he said, "but I'd be hesitant to take one statistic without really analyzing what's underneath that statistic to understand what the impact has been."
"There's no doubt in my mind that the programs we put in place changed the trajectory of an awful lot of people, and also changed the overall appearance and safety of the community," he added.
Experts say the results show limits to what a city can do to fight generational poverty.
"Even if they were really fantastic mayors, you have the mayor of one city trying to counteract the effects of a deep national recession," said Patrick Mason, an economist and head of the African American Studies department at Florida State University.
Still, some community leaders wish different decisions had been made.
"We have not created any opportunity with this money," said Maria Scruggs, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, who grew up in Midtown and is currently running for a city council seat. "We've just put on Band-Aids, and I don't really know if they've been good Band-Aids."
• • •
After riots swept across south St. Petersburg in the fall of 1996, Mayor David Fischer called the region south of downtown the city's "challenge area." Baker rebranded it "Midtown," which he defined as a group of neighborhoods with Central Avenue to the north and stretching down to 30th Avenue South, between 4th and 34th streets south.
In 2015, the city created the Southside Community Redevelopment Area, which stretched farther west to 49th Street South — into Childs Park — and north as far as 5th Avenue North.
The Times focused on an area bounded by Childs Park to the west, Bartlett Park to the east and Campbell Park to the north — predominantly black neighborhoods with historically high poverty rates, an area similar to the current CRA. About 22,000 people live there, 20,000 of whom are black.
The Times collected data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Florida Department of Revenue and the St. Petersburg Police Department. The most recent census data only covers up until 2015, two years into Kriseman's current term, with statistics for 2016 not scheduled for release until this December.
Here's what the Times found:
There are more poor residents in Midtown and Childs Park than there were in 1999.
Back then, the area's poverty rate was 33 percent and it was home to nearly half of St. Petersburg's poor black families. Now, these neighborhoods are even poorer. Census estimates today put the poverty rate between 34 and 43 percent.
Census data from 2009 — the first figures available after 1999 — showed no significant change in the poverty rate. Poverty has continued to slowly climb since then.
Many more people are living in deep poverty. The number of households earning less than half of the federal poverty line has gone from 15 percent in 1999 to 19 percent.
Residents are making less.
In Midtown and Childs Park, about 19 percent of residents can't find work — more than twice the rate in the rest of St. Petersburg.
In 1999 the average household in the area made $28,000. In 2015, the average was between $29,700 and $36,700, census figures show. But adjusted for inflation, $36,700 in 2015 buys less than $28,000 would have in 1999.
It's harder than ever for residents to afford their homes.
Over the last two decades, rents around Midtown have lagged about $100 behind the median price in the rest of the city, according to the census.
That was a big difference in 1999 when rents were about $400 and $500, respectively. But now that the median rent in the area has risen past $800, it cuts deep into renters' pockets. According to census estimates, almost half of renters are paying the majority of their income toward rent.
The soaring rents are exacerbated by low homeownership.
According to data from the property appraiser, 60 percent of single-family homes in the region were owner-occupied in 2002, versus 80 percent in the rest of the city.
Today, only 43 percent of homes in the area are homesteaded.
"People cannot find homes in Midtown," said Deborah Scanlan, director of the Neighborhood Home Solutions, a local nonprofit that helps low-income people buy homes. "It's the consumer that loses out here — he's continuing to pay the money in rent, and unable to save the money to buy that home."
Property values have dropped.
In those neighborhoods, the median home value has dropped from $48,000 in 2002 to $36,000 in 2016, 75 percent of what they were worth 14 years ago.
Residents are better educated, but schools in the area are still struggling.
Over the last two decades, Pinellas County's graduation rates have skyrocketed. Midtown and Childs Park has seen many of those gains, with the rate of adults who had a high-school degree rising from 60 percent in 1999 to about 75 percent in 2015.
Children in the area are zoned to attend three of the five lowest-performing elementary schools in the state: Melrose, Campbell Park and Fairmount Park. In recent years, concerted efforts by the district have improved scores at those schools. Still, four out of five students failed reading in 2017.
Crime is down, following local and national trends.
Over the next 12 years, violent crime dropped by half, to 706 incidents in 2014, the most recent data available.
Crime across the rest of the city has also decreased, however. In 2002, the crime rate was four times higher in Midtown and Childs Park than in the rest of the city.
In 2014, it was more than fives times higher.
Many residents say crime is still a major concern. Johnnie B. Johnson, 85, who lives on 12th Avenue South, said she stopped attending a nearby prayer meeting because she doesn't like walking in her neighborhood after dark.
"Teenagers are running wild. It's a mess over here," she said. "I wouldn't go out at night by myself."
• • •
From 1999 to 2015, St. Petersburg helped steer over $210 million in private and public investments toward trying to improve life in the Midtown area, city documents show.
Much of spending was taxpayer money for large capital projects, like the reconstruction of Gibbs High School and Perkins Elementary, which cost $51 million and $9.4 million, respectively.
The federal government also spent $40 million on the Pinellas Job Corps Center, which provides free professional training for low-income young people, adding to the $3.7 million the city spent in assembling the land.
The largest investments made by the city itself were land purchases started during Baker's administration. The city spent $7.7 million buying up over 50 parcels — many of them homes — in the hopes of presenting a large tract of land to a big employer at a site it now calls Commerce Park.
The city also spent millions to buy land for and otherwise support Tangerine Plaza, a shopping center designed to bring a grocery store into the neighborhood — one of Baker's primary goals after taking office.
Neither of those projects panned out. The city failed for seven years to woo a large employer into Commerce Park and now plans to build multiple sites it can lease to smaller businesses. Tangerine Plaza's Sweetbay Supermarket opened in 2005, then closed in 2013 before reopening months later as a Walmart Neighborhood Market. Then the Walmart closed in February. There are no plans to reopen.
"It's always the same kind of thinking: 'Let's help the developers, let's help the banks, and somehow that will help the poor people,' " Mason said.
But some residents said that approach had a positive effect on the community.
"Things that were happening in our neighborhood are closing down," said Don Ware, a 40-year-old homeowner who lives five blocks from Tangerine Plaza.
"Everybody has plans, but what are you going to prove?" he added. "What are you going to do and show that you're going to take care of the area?"
The city has also spent millions on streetscaping and beautification projects along its major corridors, like moving the powerlines off the street on 22nd Street South.
Catherine Weaver, president of the Wildwood Heights Neighborhood Association that runs along that corridor, said "the city looks better than it ever has been before" but that hasn't done much to help poor people pull themselves out of poverty. She thinks too many people are asking the question: "Who's going to help me?"
"Whoever's in office will have a problem," she said. "You have a lot of frustrated people."
• • •
Under Kriseman, the city has stepped up efforts to demolish abandoned homes and subsidize rehabs of property in the area, in the hopes that it will raise the region's lagging property values.
At the July 25 mayoral debate, Kriseman has said that the Walmart failed in Midtown because "people didn't have the money" to sustain it, and that Baker's strategy was a string of "quick fixes." He's focusing on the Southside CRA, designed to pump revenue from a growing tax base into improving small businesses in the region.
"If it was about creating the opportunity to drive by and see what you built every day, I could do that. That'd be easy to do," he told the Times. "And certainly if you want to get reelected, it's a smart thing to do."
Baker hasn't backed down from the approach he championed during his first two terms as mayor.
"We're going to keep building," he said during a debate on June 27 at a Midtown church. "Things are happening in those buildings."
As for the shuttered grocery store: "We'll bring it back again."
Contact Nathaniel Lash at email@example.com. Follow @Nat_Lash.