2020 Vision sees a bright economic future for South St. Petersburg

Can an ambitious plan make a difference in Pinellas County's poorest district?

click to enlarge WOMEN OF INFLUENCE: Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich (left) and her niece, publisher Gypsy Gallardo, are two of the leaders in the effort to reduce South St. Pete poverty. - KEVIN TIGHE
Kevin Tighe
WOMEN OF INFLUENCE: Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich (left) and her niece, publisher Gypsy Gallardo, are two of the leaders in the effort to reduce South St. Pete poverty.

In his sweeping victory over Bill Foster earlier this month, Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman won the lion’s share of the black vote south of Central Avenue, a crucial demographic that was alienated by the perceived inattention of Bill Foster.

Kriseman’s promise to pay more attention to Midtown echoed the vows of Foster’s predecessor, Rick Baker, in his first run for mayor in 2001. But despite significant strides in that direction during his tenure, the fact remained that, after Baker left office eight years later, the deleterious effects of the Great Recession had left the city’s poorest district worse off than ever.

But now a group of St. Pete activists, empowered by an eye-opening report on Pinellas County poverty, have come up with what they are calling the 2020 Plan, a specific blueprint to improve the historically depressed Southside area — a five-year, $170 million plan to reduce the crime rate by 33 percent and the poverty rate by 30 percent by the year 2020. 

The plan has its roots in a campaign to increase black voter participation in the 2009 mayoral and city council elections. The group behind that effort called itself Agenda 2010, but its ambitions were put on “simmer,” as lead organizer Gypsy Gallardo puts it, after Bill Foster’s election four years ago.

But momentum reignited, she says, with publication of the Pinellas County Commission’s game-changing 2012 report, “The Economic Impact of Poverty.”

The study focused on five regions in Pinellas — East Tarpon Springs, North Greenwood in Clearwater, Highpoint (an unincorporated area between Feather Sound and Largo), the Lealman corridor and South St. Pete — and revealed that they suffered from poorer health, lower graduation rates, higher crime, higher unemployment and less adequate housing than the rest of the county. The results also showed that while the recession hit St. Petersburg hard overall, with city-assessed property values dropping 22 percent, the drop was almost twice as high — 41.7 percent — in the city’s Southside district.

Improvements in these regions would have a positive impact throughout the county, according to the study. “Current efforts through departmental programs and services need to be re-tuned with greater efficiencies to not only maximize dollars and see a value-added return,” concluded the report, “but to also realize improved quality of life for all Pinellas County residents.”

The report changed the narrative that had dominated public discussions of poverty since the Reagan era, says Gallardo, who as editor and publisher of The Power Broker Magazine has been an influential activist in South St. Pete over the past decade. Putting a price tag on how to reduce poverty, she says, “translates into a language that even elite, moneyed Republicans can understand.”

The poverty report got the attention of Commission Chair Ken Welch and St. Pete City Council Chair Karl Nurse. Both led their respective boards to explore creation of a new Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) for the Southside — the economic strategy used by local governments to eliminate blight in specific neighborhoods and create a hospitable environment for private sector redevelopment. That has led St. Petersburg’s Economic Development Team to host a series of meetings toward a joint city-county CRA.

Agenda 2010 organizers call the CRA a “foundation block” of their plan. According to St. Pete city officials, the 2020 Plan targets “soft assets” — capital formation, restoring the family unit, financial literacy, and educational support systems. The city, meanwhile, will concentrate on “hard assets” — land acquisition, revitalizing neighborhoods, and building a transportation network — via the CRA and two TIFs, or Tax Increment Financing districts, used by cities to promote improvements in specific sections of town.

Mayor-elect Kriseman voices strong support for the 2020 Plan.

“The status quo of 20 percent unemployment and one in four residents living in poverty is unacceptable,” he said in an email statement to CL. “I’m hopeful that the 2020 Plan will provide a needed economic stimulus for Midtown and the surrounding area, and my administration will work hard to make that happen.”

He says that his deputy mayor, Kanika Tomalin, and his newly announced director of urban affairs, Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, share his commitment to this. Also worth noting is that Gallardo, Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich (Gallardo’s aunt), and several other Agenda 2010 members are also part of Kriseman’s transition team. Scruggs-Leftwich, who served as New York State’s Housing Commissioner in Governor Mario Cuomo’s cabinet and worked in the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Carter administration, is the transition team’s co-chair.

The 2020 Plan hopes to launch in October 2014 and continue through September 2019. Approval for the CRA will be a lengthy process, but it could be created shortly after the 2020 Plan launches.

One of the plan's main goals is an increase in Southside employment by 5,000, through job training and closing the skills gap. A focus on improving enrollment and graduation rates in the Pinellas school district, by “dramatically increasing” the number of students who will graduate in fields like manufacturing, construction, IT and health care, could lead to a projected 570 jobs.

Agenda 2010 organizers go so far as to say that the 2020 Plan will eliminate disparate poverty in the community “within the lifetime of many of us here,” reducing the poverty rate by a staggering 80 percent by 2045.

A bold proclamation, no doubt. But can it really happen?

Yes, insists Community Housing Solutions’ Askia Aquil, a member of both Agenda 2010 and the Kriseman transition team. “The goals as we have defined them and as we will continue to refine them are measurable,” he says, emphasizing that the plan focuses on the root causes and systemic sources of poverty.

Scruggs-Leftwich says that plans to coordinate public, private and grant/foundation resources to reduce poverty and generate community investment have been successful in a number of cities and states across the country since the 1960s, but “have not been targeted to Deep South, quasi-urban communities like St. Pete,” other than in “outliers” like Atlanta, Richmond Va. and Columbia, S.C.

“While it may be new to people in St. Petersburg, it’s an old concept,” she points out.

Funding is critical to the success of the 2020 Plan, and organizers say it won’t be about bleeding the taxpayer. Part of their pitch is how they intend to get the private sector to invest, calling on the community to be a “financial force,” raising more than $10 million of the $170 million budget.

“We’re not asking for handouts,” says 2020 Plan task force member Gwen Reese. “We’re asking for people to buy into a plan that will benefit an entire community.” She wants to disabuse people of the notion that a decrease in poverty in South St. Pete will benefit only those in South St. Pete. “Whatever we do to decrease poverty benefits the entire community.”

Agenda 2010 members are also looking at potential grants, including $100,000 in private money to match the amount that they’re requesting from City Council. Organizers say it’s important to reiterate that while the county has established baseline goals when it comes to reducing poverty — such as reducing recidivism and eliminating skills and employment gaps — only four of 26 such goals are currently being met.

City Council Chair Nurse says one of the positives of the 2020 Plan is that it attempts to address the community’s problems in advance (such as improving pre-K education) rather than trying to clean up the results of failure, which is how most government poverty programs operate.

“The goal here is to move money to the front end of the process,” he says.

Not surprisingly, the plan has its critics. Sharon Russ, who ran unsuccessfully for the District 6 City Council seat against Nurse, says it’s full of platitudes, not concrete plans. And she’s not convinced that Agenda 2010 organizers have reached out sufficiently to the community. She says St. Pete residents are cynical about efforts to improve their community, and refers to St. Pete NCAA leaders Manuel Sykes, Gypsy Gallardo and others behind the effort as the “usual suspects.”

Failed City Council District 4 candidate Dr. David McKalip is also critical, saying that the CRA “directs far too little money too slowly to South St. Petersburg and allows politicians more excuses for failures.”

On the county level, several commissioners have expressed concerns about allowing South St. Pete to be the first of the five identified poverty-stricken regions to get help.

Current Mayor Foster is solidly behind the Southside St. Pete CRA. Speaking before the commission in early October, he said, “This is of countywide importance. It’s all about change. It’s all about people.”

Rick Smith, the City of St. Petersburg’s community redevelopment coordinator, says the process to bring the CRA to South St. Pete will include community workshops and ultimately a community advisory committee consisting of local residents and businesspeople. The goal is to have a plan in draft form by next summer, before it goes through the City Council and ultimately lands on the County Commission’s agenda toward the end of 2014.

Ken Welch says that from his perspective, “Reducing generational poverty is as important to Pinellas’ future as sea level rise, flood insurance or economic development. I’m focused on that transformative strategic goal, rather than the target reduction percentages.”

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