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Did a developer imply the local NAACP backed its Tropicana Field plan?

Esther Eugene said she spoke favorably about one company’s plan as a private person, not as president of the St. Petersburg NAACP.
This screengrab from a video by Sugar Hill Community Partners and JMA Ventures identifies Esther Eugene as the president of the St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP, speaking in support of the developers' $3 billion proposal to redevelop the city'sTropicana Field site. Eugene said she was speaking on her own behalf as a local businesswoman, not as an NAACP leader. She said Sugar Hill misidentified her in their video, lending the false impression that the NAACP was endorsing their proposal, which she said is not the case.
This screengrab from a video by Sugar Hill Community Partners and JMA Ventures identifies Esther Eugene as the president of the St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP, speaking in support of the developers' $3 billion proposal to redevelop the city'sTropicana Field site. Eugene said she was speaking on her own behalf as a local businesswoman, not as an NAACP leader. She said Sugar Hill misidentified her in their video, lending the false impression that the NAACP was endorsing their proposal, which she said is not the case. [ Sugar Hill Community Partners ]
Published Mar. 23
Updated Mar. 23

ST. PETERSBURG — In a video produced by Sugar Hill Community Partners, one of the firms on the city’s shortlist to build atop the Tropicana Field site, Esther Eugene doted on the company’s proposal.

“Sugar Hill was able to connect the dots, and not just connect the dots, but connect the history behind the dots that truly made up the full spectrum of what that project was,” said Eugene, who is a businesswoman and the president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP.

Related: Watch: Tropicana Field development bidders share video visions of St. Petersburg

But Eugene said Sugar Hill — which is led by San Francisco developer JMA Ventures — didn’t properly contextualize her comments, and that the video implied the NAACP’s endorsement. That’s because a chyron next to Eugene’s face identified her by her NAACP title. Eugene said she gave the comments “on a personal and professional level.”

“I did not endorse this plan on behalf of NAACP,” Eugene said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. “As President, it is not appropriate to endorse any plan. I am not speaking for the NAACP board or membership about the project, and I am looking for opportunities for each of you to have your voices heard by JMA Ventures and the other redevelopment teams.”

David Carlock, the founder and principal of Machete Group Inc. and the development manager for Sugar Hill’s proposal, said the use of Eugene’s NAACP title was “an oversight as the video was pulled together.” Sugar Hill resubmitted the video to St. Petersburg officials with Eugene’s title as leader of her company, All Administrative Solutions.

Related: Four firms make St. Petersburg's shortlist for Tropicana Field site development

“The intention was not to suggest that she was endorsing us,” Carlock said. “She did not say that she was representing the NAACP in her comments. She didn’t say that she was endorsing our team.”

Carlock and Eugene both said she was not paid for her participation in the video and that Sugar Hill has not hired All Administrative Solutions for any consulting work.

“Esther has been kind enough to be helpful to us in our efforts to understand the community better,” said Carlock, explaining Eugene’s role.

City development officials had the four finalists vying to reimagine the 86-acre site submit 5-minute long videos ahead of next month’s public comment period. The deadline to submit them was Friday. Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office confirmed it received the updated video and will accept it because the alteration of Eugene’s title doesn’t change the overall substance of the video.

Related: Here are the 7 proposals to redevelop Tropicana Field site in St. Petersburg

Sugar Hill’s mea culpa is reflective of the sensitive and complex nature of the massive redevelopment project. In addition to constructing homes, office space, parks and a host of other physical amenities, the site is tasked with trying to heal old wounds that remain raw within the city’s Black community over the construction of the stadium, first called the Florida Suncoast Dome. In the 1980s, the city bought up an entire neighborhood, the Gas Plant district, displacing families and businesses, before razing it all to make room for the dome. When city development officials solicited proposals last year, they asked developers to make honoring the sacrifice of the forsaken neighborhood central to their concepts and encouraged community input into the design.

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Sugar Hill’s proposal several times mentions partnering with the local NAACP and numerous other community organizations should the company be selected by Kriseman, who could make a decision as soon as May or June, according to the city’s timeline. The other proposals — from Miami’s Midtown Development, local investment group Third Lake Partners and Atlanta developers Portman Holdings and Portman Residential, and Orlando’s Unicorp National Developments — promise similar overtures.

John Collins, the outgoing executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, was also featured in Sugar Hill’s video. In his quick appearance, he said he hopes the arts will be incorporated into the Trop site’s future.

He said he was approached by several of the developers to give input about the arts and felt his comments were offered with appropriate context. He said neither he nor the alliance were paid for his time.

“I did want to make sure that the arts were at the table with anyone who was willing to listen to me,” Collins said for why he participated.

Related: St. Petersburg tossed these two Tropicana Field site proposals. Why?

The videos were submitted ahead of next month’s public comment sessions, the details of which were released Tuesday. There will be three public meetings about the Trop redevelopment: a virtual one on April 5 from 6 - 8:30 p.m., plus in-person ones on April 7 and April 8 from 6 - 8:30 p.m. at the Coliseum, 535 4th Ave. N. Registration, masks and distancing will be required at the in-person events, according to city officials.

There are also four “immersive showrooms” where members of the public can see the proposals and renderings: North Library, 861 70th Ave. N; Mirror Lake Library, 280 5th St. N; JW Cate Rec Center, 5801 22nd Ave. N and Enoch Davis Rec Center, 1111 18th Ave. S.

Members of the public can also leave comments at stpete.org/trop.