St. Petersburg's $2.5 million climate award doesn't come with cash

Instead the city gets a package of resources, which its sustainability director says is far more valuable than the money.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, right, had coffee with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman before awarding the city a $2.5 million climate change award. But the award comes with no cash.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, right, had coffee with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman before awarding the city a $2.5 million climate change award. But the award comes with no cash.
Published Jan. 23, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The $2.5 million climate award the city won from Bloomberg Philanthropies comes with a lot.

"A philanthropy-funded team member," the city's news release touts. "Resources," "support," "coaching."

But what's not included? Any actual cash.

"We do not provide direct checks to cities," said Bloomberg Philanthropies spokeswoman Lee Cochran. "That's never been the way that this works."

So where did the number come from? Bloomberg Philanthropies said it would not provide a detailed accounting of the resources St. Petersburg will receive and what those individual items are worth, leaving it unclear how the value of the award was assessed at $2.5 million. City spokesman Ben Kirby couldn't provide a breakdown either, referring that question back to Bloomberg Philanthropies.

"We're not doing a breakdown per city in what each city is getting value-wise," Cochran said. "I'm not comfortable describing how our programs work on that level of detail."

St. Petersburg's Sustainability Director Sharon Wright, who oversaw the drafting of the city's award application, said the dollar amount doesn't really matter.

"The resources they're offering are so valuable, I would apply for it even if it didn't have a value on it," she said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Michael Bloomberg announces $2.5 million award for St. Pete climate change efforts

The American Cities Climate Challenge follows the pledge cities and states made to adhere to the sustainability standards outlined in the 2016 Paris Climate Accord, even though President Donald Trump said the U.S., as a country, would not abide by the agreement. The Challenge targets cities, according to the program's web page, because they produce 70 percent of the world's carbon emissions. In all, the organization says it's investing $70 million in the program.

The country's 100 most populous cities were invited to apply; 51 submitted applications. St. Petersburg was one of 25 cities that won, joining a two-year program that is supposed to help the city reduce its carbon footprint. The ultimate goal is to reduce emissions by 20 percent by the end of 2020, Wright said.

To get there, Bloomberg Philanthropies is giving the city a "support package," which it values at up to $2.5 million. Perhaps the main component of the package is an onsite staffer who will work in St. Petersburg alongside Wright and "facilitate the development and passage of high impact policies." That person's salary will be paid by Bloomberg.

The rest of the package comes in the form of resources: "data, design, and innovation resources," "citizen engagement support," "polling and communications support," "implementation coaching," "robust peer-to-peer learning and networking," "rapid response grants" and "access" to groups like Natural Resources Defense Council, Delivery Associates, National Association of City Transportation Officials, Institute for Market Transformation, Rocky Mountain Institute and World Resources Institute.

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The city can use all that to achieve a set of smaller goals that together could propel it toward that 20 percent reduction number. Some of the goals the city hopes to accomplish include finding 50 to 100 private buildings with owners that agree to let the city collect data, renovating 400,000 square feet of city office space to make it more sustainable, and promoting solar energy and renewable energy initiatives. Several of the winning cities, including St. Petersburg, Cincinnati and Charlotte, are serviced by Duke Energy, so Wright said together they could lobby the power company to produce more electricity from renewable methods.

Another goal is to to educate and eventually offer incentives for those who invest in electric vehicles and charging stations.

Wright said the access component of the award is one of the most important. Much of the sustainability work her staff does is novel, and help can be hard to find.

"We don't have that kind of expertise at our fingertips," she said. Usually, city planners resort to calling other cities that have tried different approaches to solve a particular problem.

The value of all that remains fuzzy.

Wright said when she first heard the award came without any money, she wondered if it was more about the recognition, not helping the city become more sustainable. After learning more, she said she would rather have the award's resources than a cash prize.

"In my mind, if we were to get a check for $2.5 million, I could probably get one, maybe two rec centers energy efficient, then we'd walk away," she said.

Contact Josh Solomon at or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.