ST. PETERSBURG — Affordable housing. Health and social equity. Economic recovery and resilience. Public safety. Infrastructure. Which issue could use millions of dollars?
With $45 million in federal stimulus funding coming its way, the City of St. Petersburg is asking that question of its residents. Last week, the city held three workshops that asked residents to rank and sound off on those five issues, all of which meet the strict criteria for stimulus funding.
Residents were randomly assigned to tables and given poster boards to rank their issues and list any additional comments. About 50 to 75 residents attended each of the workshops, held at Enoch Davis Center on the city’s south side, to the west at the J.W. Cate Community Center and at the Willis S. Johns Center to the north. The public can view the recorded workshops and submit their rankings and comments through Friday at stpete.org/arpa.
The city expects to receive the $45 million, allocated by the American Rescue Plan Act, in two payments between now and summer 2022. Each city administrator pitched to the audience why their area of expertise should be prioritized while giving examples of some of the projects that could be funded.
For example, for economic recovery and resilience, stimulus funding could be spent on Tangerine Plaza, the south St. Petersburg shopping center that has not been able to retain a grocery store, Tropicana Field redevelopment or the Municipal Services Center Project. For health and social equity, stimulus could pay for healthy food access, Internet availability and vaccination events and incentives. And as for housing, stimulus could go toward contributions or grants to help fund eligible affordable housing developments.
“With what we got, what’s most important to you in the community?” Mayor Rick Kriseman asked the audience at Wednesday’s workshop at Willis S. Johns Center. “We are waiting on you to help us allocate these dollars in a responsible way.”
Kriseman said the rankings and comments will shape his recommendation to City Council later this month. Overall, the rankings sort out like this: Affordable housing is by far the most pressing issue, followed by health and social equity and economic recovery and resilience.
The residents at Jenna Sierra’s table ranked affordable housing first. She said land for Tropicana Field, “is benefiting no one, not even the Rays at this point.”
“It’s a huge plot of land that was stolen from the Black community,” she said to cheers.
The city’s public works administrator, Claude Tankersley, made the case that $45 million is not enough to significantly impact any infrastructure projects, which can cost billions. He also said that infrastructure projects already have a steady funding source. As a result, many groups ranked infrastructure last out of five.
“Infrastructure already budgeted and covered? That’s a five,” said NAACP St. Petersburg Branch President Esther Eugene.
Groups listed their priorities in the comments section. Roger Curlin said he’d like to see the funding go toward climate change and healthy grocery stores in the Southside. He said he’d like to see a team in charge of fairly distributing the federal funds, too.
Though St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway and Fire Chief Jim Large said the federal funding could go toward ionization systems for air handler units and portable sanitizing stations, many groups also ranked public safety and health last by saying the police already had enough funding.
City Council Chair Ed Montanari and Vice Chair Gina Driscoll sat in on one workshop. Mayoral hopefuls Pete Boland and Michael Ingram participated in round table discussions. And several community and activist groups, like the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund and 1199 SEIU Florida, which represents 25,000 health care employees from hospitals to nursing homes, made their case for why their cause should receive funding. Pinellas Theory of Change handed out fliers with their list of priorities at the entrances of the workshops.
City Council member and mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon said all $45 million should be allocated for water resources and to pay down debt.
“We should just invest it. Water doesn’t discriminate. That should be where this money goes,” Blackmon said. Otherwise, “We’re going to split it to death.”
That same week, candidates running for mayor attended a “Zoning is the Answer” housing summit to talk about NTM-1, or Neighborhood Traditional Mixed Residential, a new zoning category that allows for several residential dwellings on one property. That would help with housing inventory to help alleviate the affordable housing crisis in Florida’s second smallest yet most densely populated county.
Acknowledging the city’s affordable housing crisis, the candidates (all but one attended; Marcile Powers was absent after being exposed to COVID-19) were each in favor of the new zoning category and gave their ideas on how to apply it across the city and fix the system to make affordable housing easier.