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Midtown metamorphosis

Transformation of the Midtown area of St. Petersburg is already under way. The planned shopping center becoming a reality would signal true revitalization.

Published October 29, 2003

Most urban residents take for granted that a variety of businesses, such as grocery stores, banks and other shops providing everyday needs, will be nearby. That hasn't been the experience of those living in the Midtown area of St. Petersburg for the past three decades, however. A once-thriving commercial strip that mainly served the African-American community, the 22nd Street S corridor had fallen into decline.

So when a local group called Urban Development Solutions announced recently that it has plans to bring a Kash n' Karry and other stores to a block of 22nd Street S, the news marked an important measure of success in the Midtown redevelopment effort. The project is a coordinated effort that also includes the city, which would contribute land and financial backing, and the Sembler Co., which developed BayWalk downtown and would contribute its expertise. If the grocery store and shopping center become a reality, it would signal that Midtown revitalization is well on its way.

Another encouraging sign came in recent poll results that show residents throughout the city understand the importance of progress in Midtown. Given a list of six key issues facing the city, respondents gave the second highest ranking (23 percent) to "revitalizing neighborhoods just south of downtown, such as Midtown." The top issue was crime (34 percent), but Midtown redevelopment was rated more important than holding taxes down (20 percent).

Since his successful campaign in 2001, Mayor Rick Baker has stressed the need to reverse the decline of the area he renamed Midtown. He argued that a city cannot go forward for long if it leaves any area behind, so he found the poll outcome gratifying. "I think we have made a lot of progress getting buy-in from the entire community," Baker said.

Buy-in from the residents of Midtown is also necessary and, as Goliath Davis, deputy mayor for Midtown, pointed out, the goals were set by Midtown residents themselves in a series of public meetings. "We said economic development will be a reality when blank occurs, and we asked them to fill in the blank," Davis explained. The answers were general, such as support for existing businesses and living-wage jobs, to the more specific, such as a grocery store, bank and post office.

A grocery store could soon be a reality if the City Council gives its approval to the Kash n' Karry project, and Davis is working on getting other basic services to the area. The city is trying to develop the Dome Industrial District, which could be the source of jobs in the neighborhood, and advanced training will be available from a new Job Corps center being planned nearby.

Already, with landscaping and other public improvements, the 22nd Street S corridor has been transformed from an eyesore into a place of obvious potential. The historic Mercy Hospital has been rehabilitated and enlarged and will offer a variety of health services. Renovation plans for the old Royal Theater and Manhattan Casino are under way. Such achievements have encouraged 30 businesses to open or relocate in Midtown over the past two years, Davis said.

St. Petersburg residents should be proud that the effort to lift Midtown along with the rest of the city has popular support, and pleased that it is starting to pay off.

[Last modified October 29, 2003, 01:49:08]


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