For the last several municipal election cycles, St. Petersburg voters have been promised that things would be different. Decision-making would be dragged from the back rooms, and city government would once again be transparent, embracing the needs of the city’s communities over the desires of developers.
But we continue to see those hopes dashed by so-called leaders who place the interests of speculators over those of the people they serve. It’s time for the people to say, “No more!” — and for elected officials to finally start delivering what the people want and need.
Case in point: The city-owned Tangerine Plaza, a desolate strip plaza on 22nd Street and 18th Avenue South that’s been mostly vacant since 2017. Two different developers have expressed interest in turning the forsaken eyesore into a thriving retail hub bustling with economic and community activity. The proposals are as different as night and day.
One is from Robert Blackmon, the visionary who successfully turned around the Hillside Center near Northeast High School and would provide the city more than $1.6 million in cash for the opportunity to revitalize the Tangerine Plaza property. In sharp contrast, a less beneficial proposal by the Sugar Hill Group represents a gift for a developer who previously tried to resurrect Tangerine Plaza and failed.
Guess which deal our city leaders are drawn to? Naturally, it’s the one that would do so much less for the people but more for the favored developer.
Let’s look a little deeper into the two competing proposals. Blackmon, who made it into the runoff for mayor in 2021, has submitted a proposal to the city to buy the Tangerine Plaza property for cash up front. In contrast, the Sugar Hill Group, who already failed once to redevelop Tangerine Plaza, now wants to lease the property from the city for the wholly unimpressive sum of $20,000 a year for an absurd 75 years.
The Sugar Hill Group likes to hype its proposal as a $1.5 million deal, but the city would receive that money in dribs and drabs over a stretch of decades. Blackmon’s proposal would provide the cash immediately — funding that could be used to help St. Petersburg’s neediest residents.
The would-be developers behind the Sugar Hill Group have had their shot at invigorating this property, and they failed — so why does the current city leadership insist on continuing to pursue a less advantageous plan that can only be described as a sweetheart deal?
It’s time for new leadership and a new vision. Under former Mayor Rick Baker and other leaders, our city moved away from the schemes that created a system to pick winners and losers. We fell back into that under former Mayor Rick Kriseman — and unfortunately, Mayor Ken Welch has only continued this perilous path.
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It’s hard to fathom why city leaders are so enthusiastic about the Sugar Hill Group’s leasing plan, which would entail tearing down a plaza that should be active in an area that’s currently a food desert. First and foremost, it offers a smaller payment: $1.5 million versus $1.625 million. Second, it would pay just $20,000 a year versus a lump-sum payment up front by Blackmon. Third, they had four years yet failed to secure a financing package. What’s the likelihood that the Sugar Hill developer or the property will still be sufficiently thriving to make any payment at all three-quarters of a century from now?
Something doesn’t smell right about the city’s ongoing pursuit of the Sugar Hill Group’s lease proposal. The system of spoils is over. It’s time for a new era and transparency. The city should sell the property to the entity that has a proven track record and is ready to put its money where its mouth is.
And then the voters should start looking around for leaders who won’t have to be cajoled into putting their interests first.
Deveron Gibbons is a developer, community activist, former mayoral candidate and longtime St. Petersburg College trustee, who was recently added to the Florida A&M University’s board of trustees. He retired as Amscot’s senior vice president of public affairs and lives in St. Petersburg with his family.