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Midtown's development in debate

The gentrification of the area is a key issue for Mayor Rick Baker. But residents question what's really being done.

Published May 14, 2004

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
The gentrification of the area is a key issue for Mayor Rick Baker. But residents question what's really being done.
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At left, detail of a map showing some developments since the 1996 disturbances.
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Additional map:
A night of unrest

ST. PETERSBURG - After two nights of disturbances in 1996 made national headlines, the search for causes focused on the lack of economic development in the affected neighborhoods.

The government poured more than $100-million into the area now known as Midtown, which is mostly south of Central Avenue. There are new schools and a new library. There is a health center, and the promise of a grocery store.

Now those same neighborhoods have endured another night of violence and are bracing for this weekend. Some of the businesses that had opened since 1996 were damaged. Some of the new schools postponed plays and other activities planned for Thursday night. And city officials are rallying to defend and protect redevelopment efforts.

Mayor Rick Baker pledged Thursday that the sporadic violence that started Wednesday in the same general area as the 1996 disturbances will not affect the city's commitment to redevelop Midtown.

"If anyone believes that through an act of criminal violence they can slow our progress in Midtown for even one second, they are wrong," Baker said. "I'm going to redouble my efforts and stay the course."

Teresa "Mamma Tee" Lassiter, a longtime Midtown activist, said she was saddened by the latest violence but understood the frustration that spawned it. Her assessment of the city's progress was tempered.

"Ever since 1996, these city people have been saying we're going to have a better community," she said. "But look at what we've got. What do we really have?"

Lassiter pointed to the Dome Industrial Pilot Project, 16 acres of choice property near Tropicana Field that still stands empty six years after the city purchased the land for some future project.

"Why is it there's all this development going on downtown and nothing is really happening here?" Lassiter asked. "What do we really have except sidewalks, trees and lights?"

City officials contend they are making progress. Council member John Bryan said he believes most Midtown residents are not as angry as the violence might indicate.

"I think most of the Midtown community is pretty happy," he said. "At least they were until last night."

Midtown's 5.5 square miles is home to about 20,000 people, most of them African-American. The average Midtown worker makes $10,559 a year, well below the citywide average of $22,637 a year.

Midtown makes up less than 10 percent of St. Petersburg's population, but more than half of the city's homicides last year took place there. Most of those were drug-related killings, police said.

Only one chain grocery, Winn-Dixie, is in the area, and it sits on the northern edge. Midtown residents, particularly those without transportation, often have to shop at smaller markets, which can be more expensive than chain grocery stores.

Baker has made Midtown's renaissance a personal crusade, with mixed success. For instance, he has unsuccessfully lobbied the U.S. Postal Service to open a walkup post office in the area.

And there have been stumbles. The city's largest provider of low-interest business loans and business training for low-income people shut down recently, after two years of contentious contract negotiations with the city's economic development office.

Micro-Business, USA, was a nationally acclaimed, South Florida-based small business development program that the city of St. Petersburg courted and asked to help stimulate growth in Midtown.

In its four years of operation, the 16th Street S nonprofit helped 425 residents write business plans and disbursed 182 loans.

But in recent years, the city and Micro-Business were unable to agree on how much the city should pay for its services or where its office should be located.

"I don't think this is a setback," said Omali Yeshitela, a leader of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement in St. Petersburg. "There's nothing to set back. The city made promises of economic development, none of which have happened. The magnet schools are for white people's children. There's been a 400 percent increase in property values because of gentrification. Residents are paying higher taxes but there's no economic development to increase their income.

"There has not been progress, but this backward movement."

Much of the money spent on developing Midtown has been on building new government facilities there. The city built its biggest recreation center, Wildwood Recreation Center there. A few blocks away on 34th Street S, Gibbs High School is being rebuilt, a $50-million project that is the largest school-building effort in Pinellas County's history.

In some cases, new buildings sprouted on sites that were targets of violence in 1996. A new Perkins Elementary School was built where a liquor store was burned down, and the expanded James Weldon Johnson Library went up where half a dozen homes had been damaged.

Pure private development has been rarer in Midtown. A parade of small businesses have come and gone. However, in March 2003, Baker and Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis announced the most significant economic development in Midtown so far: a grocery store planned for the northeast corner of 18th Avenue S and 22nd Street S, across from Perkins Elementary.

Larry Newsome, head of the company that is building the Kash n' Karry grocery in Midtown, said he saw the disturbances "as a bump in the road that needed to be handled."

Two months ago, his company, Urban Development Solutions, signed a contract with the grocery chain - which is changing its name to Sweetbay Supermarkets - to anchor a shopping center that would open by summer 2005.

"Nothing I have seen or heard says slow down or turn around," Newsome said of his project. "There is a positive move afoot in Midtown. There is a real potential for renaissance."

Earlier this week, developer Ron Donaldson broke ground for another shopping center on 18th Avenue S, this one to be called Three Oaks Commerce. Tenants are supposed to include a Subway restaurant, Your Dollar Store, Purge cleaners, Rush House Seafood Grill and an accounting firm, Thomas & Carr.

What happened "does not discourage me at all," Donaldson said. "It means our efforts on the marketing side have to be intensified. I recognize that we have to work that much harder."

NAACP president Darryl Rouson urged the community to be patient and pointed to some of the projects already under way in Midtown, such as renovations of the historic Manhattan Casino and the Royal Theater.

"It may seem slow, and you may want progress to come quicker and faster, but the important thing is, it's happening," Rouson said.

- Times staff writers Sharon Bond, Marcus Franklin, Waveney Ann Moore and Jon Wilson contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 18, 2004, 09:52:37]

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