St. Petersburg may tweak rules for developers seeking public dollars

After Mayor Ken Welch nixed a Moffitt campus downtown, the community benefits process gets a second look.
St. Petersburg City Hall, where City Council members will consider changes to a program in which developers who get public support from the city must show their project has a community benefit.
St. Petersburg City Hall, where City Council members will consider changes to a program in which developers who get public support from the city must show their project has a community benefit. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published June 6|Updated June 6

ST. PETERSBURG — A proposed Moffitt Cancer Center campus on city-owned land was the first project required to provide community benefits. Then it was canceled anyway by Mayor Ken Welch, who said it didn’t include enough affordable housing.

On Monday, a citizen advisory council met for the first time in nine months to go over proposed changes to make the Community Benefits Agreement program clearer and more predictable. The adjustments are coming under consideration as the city prepares for what is likely to be the next project subject to the requirement: The redevelopment of Tropicana Field, excluding the ballpark.

The City Council will meet June 15 to discuss the changes and could vote on a new review process by the end of summer. That’s around when the city expects a term sheet with the Tampa Bay Rays and the team’s development partner, Hines, to be ready.

A Moffitt Cancer Center location could be part of that deal. The cancer center submitted a letter of recommendation for the Hines/Rays team, said city Economic & Workforce Development Director Brian Caper.

“They have been in communications with them,” Caper said. “I fully expect Moffitt will come back to the table at some point in the future.”

What happened?

The Community Benefits Agreement program was created with this idea in mind: If the city is giving major benefits to a private entity, such as a financial contribution, discounted land or subsidized parking, taxpayers should get something in return for that investment.

That could be affordable housing, something that contributes to the city’s environmental resiliency or job training. But every deal is different and officials can’t anticipate every possible benefit. The city wants to attract developers and those benefits instead of creating bureaucracy.

So the city came up with changes and created a “streamlined” review process.

“The process we had before was way too cumbersome, super tedious, not an effective strategy for getting developers interested,” said Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, who sits on the advisory committee. “There’s a reason there have been no other proposals that have come forward since the Moffitt deal. It’s not because people aren’t building in St. Pete, not because developments aren’t happening, but because of the process that happened at Moffitt.”

What could change?

According to Caper, City Council members recommended that job creation should be a factor when weighing community benefits when considering the Moffitt proposal. Moffitt could’ve created 200 jobs with salaries averaging more than $100,000. The fact that cancer patients wouldn’t have to drive to Tampa was not considered a benefit.

So city staff came up with a proposed exemption: Any company generating 300 new jobs paying 150% of the average Pinellas County annual wage, or about $81,000, would not have to go through the community benefit review process.

That sparked a discussion about gentrification. Committee member Bruce Nissen said workers who relocate to the city with higher-paying jobs not only price out residents making less but raise the median income. Affordable housing is often based on a percentage of the area median income.

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“They should perhaps be even more strongly subjected to (review),” Nissen said.

He also argued for another suggestion he’s made in the past but wasn’t among the changes the city brought Monday: Companies should run an apprenticeship program rather than their own training program.

“The purpose of what’s behind this is to provide training so that we get skilled individuals who have life-affirming and a family-supporting set of skills and jobs,” Nissen said. “Particularly if we’re talking about minority businesses and minority workers who are the bedrock of the community.”

Committee chairperson Gypsy Gallardo said her own analysis found that the city doesn’t have enough skilled workers to meet its own goals for minority participation in construction.

“So, so much of the economic impact of projects leaves the city and bypasses the community,” she said. “How are my people, Black people specifically, advanced through this as the most economically compromised?”