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Challenge program collects award

St. Petersburg's effort to improve communities hit by civil disturbances in 1996 gains recognition from a national group.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- So far, so good.

The city's Challenge 2001 project has won a national cultural diversity award, and officials say the recognition validates continuing efforts to improve life in neighborhoods where street violence broke out in 1996.

Pages of statistics measuring progress in four key quality-of-life categories impressed the judges.

"(Judges said) all the applications were good, but in terms of depth and breadth, ours by far outweighed the others," said Tyna Middleton, special projects manager for the Challenge 2001 program.

The National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, an arm of the National League of Cities, presented the award earlier this month during the league's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

St. Petersburg was one of eight cities honored.

Economic equity, community renewal, education and public safety are the categories Challenge 2001 targets for measurable, numerical improvement -- which in turn is expected to reflect some visible upgrading in neighborhoods between Central and 30th avenues S, between Fourth and 34th streets.

Mayor David Fischer announced the program in May 1997 after the previous autumn's two nights of civil disturbances in the area.

Fischer is pleased with the national recognition, saying that any one of the four elements the city submitted for judging might have won the award. But he cautioned that much work remains.

"This is a long way from home," Fischer said. "Basically, what we have to do is commit for the long haul."

Joseph Johnson, the city's economic development director, suggested it could take 10 to 12 years before the area's business base comes close to full strength.

Meanwhile, he points to 29 new or expanded businesses, 1,400 new jobs and progress on the Dome District industrial park as evidence of how far the program has come in three years.

More than one-third of the jobs -- about 500 -- are due to the coming of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, according to a job creation activities report. They include an array of services: concessions, maintenance, clean-up, even cable work when mobile broadcasting trucks are at Tropicana Field.

The Tropicana jobs last only during baseball season, April until October. But the workers should be able to find work the rest of the year, partly due to the low-unemployment economy, Johnson said.

"If a person wants a job and they're committed, they can get one," he said.

The businesses, too, cover an array of activities: Vencor Hospital (107 jobs), Walgreens (30), Bama Sea Products (80), the Extra Innings Ballpark Cafe (20) and Modern Business Associations (20) are among the larger new or expanding employers, according to the job creation report.

Building businesses in the Challenge area -- a long-neglected 5.5-square-mile area with 25,000 residents -- isn't the same as developing a shiny office park on the order of, say, Carillon in north St. Petersburg.

It takes a consistent and complex grass-roots effort, backed by small-business loans and help from the city's Business Development Center (1045 16th St. S) and other sources such as mentoring groups, financial counselors and banks, Johnson said.

Several new businesses are home-based. They may account for just one new job, but count as a new enterprise. They might typically offer products for wholesale, child care, nursing and professional services such as typing, Johnson said.

Both Johnson and Fischer said more visible progress will emerge by year's end.

Now, "you don't see anything but the tip of the iceberg," Fischer said.

Still to rise or fully emerge, he said, are the Hope VI project at Jordan Park, the expanded Enoch Davis Center that includes a new library, the Wildwood community center, the Mercy Hospital wellness center, business district improvements on 22nd and 16th streets S, a drug rehabilitation center on Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street S and the Dome industrial park.

The Dome industrial park, boosted by $7.5-million in grants, should be showing signs of change by the end of summer, Johnson said. Plans call for 600 employees working in a variety of businesses in 300,000 square feet of space, he said.

The other elements that contributed to the Challenge 2001 award:

Community renewal. The goal is to increase the median housing value in the Challenge area by 25 percent. Property values have increased by 10 percent each of the past three years, according to city reports based on county figures. New houses are planned or being built and homeowners have received help under several programs.

Education. The goal is to increase reading levels of third-grade students and increase the number of students attaining high school diplomas through community involvement. To date, about 500 pupils have received tutoring or mentoring by volunteers and city employees. Meanwhile, the School Board has remodeled two schools and plans to revamp several existing schools and build others in the Challenge area.

Public safety. The goal is to decrease crime in the Challenge area by 5 percent each year, and improve relations between police and residents. The city cites figures showing violent crime is down 18 percent and property crime is down 6 percent in the Challenge area. Meanwhile, 230 police officers have volunteered to paint houses and 193 have tutored or mentored youths.

Fischer accepted the award at the League of Cities' "Celebrate Diversity" breakfast March 12 in Washington, D.C. City Council members Rene Flowers, Kathleen Ford, Bill Foster, Bob Kersteen, Jay Lasita and Frank Peterman also attended.

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