Council closes day labor business
By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA
© St. Petersburg Times,
GULFPORT -- A day labor business on 49th Street must close its doors Sept. 20 after running afoul of city rules and neighbors.
Able Body has filled about 70 minimum-wage jobs each day for the past five years. In September 2000, the business moved two blocks to 915 49th St. S but neglected to renew its occupational license with the new address.
Several procedural steps followed and, when Able Body's application reached the City Council, neighbors used the forum to complain that the day laborers often drank alcohol and used drugs near their properties. Police confirmed an increase in criminal activity in the area.
The City Council unanimously rejected a site plan last week that would have allowed Able Body to remain in operation.
"I have had to change the way I live," said Don Gregory, whose home is across an alley behind the business. "It has been a living hell back there. Nobody feels safe. It's a 24-hour party zone."
Police Chief G. Curt Willocks told the council that Able Body operates a "legitimate business" but should not be located near a residential neighborhood.
"Any commercial area attracts some amount of criminal activity and those prone to such activity, but the nature of the services Able Body provides attracts a clientele that, oftentimes, are not able to maintain continued employment," Willocks said. "The reasons are frequently related to a criminal past, incarceration or substance abuse. This fact creates a conflict with a residential neighborhood and a concern for public safety in the area."
Said City Manager Bob Lee: "It was really a question of whether this business was appropriate for a site so close to a residential neighborhood. If Gulfport had more buffered industrial sites, (council members) wouldn't have struggled with this for two meetings. Seventy or more people standing outside in the morning or evening wouldn't be a problem."
The workers who come to Able Body each day will have to find a new source for jobs. The nearest day labor agencies are on 34th Street in St. Petersburg.
Attorney David Lamont said that Able Body, which operates several locations throughout Pinellas County, "goes where the needy workers are" and serves such area businesses as beach hotels and Tropicana Field. Even the city of Gulfport hired some of its workers, he said.
"Are there bad apples in the bunch? Absolutely. But you are assuming that if you don't approve the site plan, these people will go away," Lamont said.
When asked if the business could relocate, Lamont said nothing was available on the Gulfport side of 49th Street. Any locations in St. Petersburg would require meeting that city's codes and would take months to resolve.
"I don't think we could be back in business until December or January," Lamont said. The property owners who leased their building to Able Body now are worried that their $1,284 monthly rental income will stop.
John and Ruthie Lewis had questions for the City Council. "Who do they want us to rent it to? Who are they to tell us who we can rent to? It's not fair," said Ruthie Lewis, adding that the previous tenants also operated a day labor business.
Lee would not say the council's action effectively banned day labor business from Gulfport. However, he said that any new business would have to go through the same site plan review before being granted an occupational license and would face the same issues.
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