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Catalyze 2022: County Commission Chair Charlie Justice

Mark Parker

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We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2022 and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2022.

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice has a long track record of service to the area that raised him: he served as a state representative from 2000-2006, a state senator from 2006-2010 and county commissioner since 2012.

Justice will lead the commission in the new year after it unanimously selected him to replace Commissioner Dave Eggers as Chair in November. As the leader of a commission that governs Florida’s most densely populated county, Justice’s main focus for 2022 is strengthening partnerships to achieve the region’s goals.

Justice said the commission has so many ideas and projects “in the hopper” that he finds it impossible to name just one as a big idea for 2022. Instead, he said the new year is about bringing those projects to a conclusion.

“And a lot of that is partnerships,” said Justice. “With the City of St. Petersburg, with the Tropicana site, with the Rays, with some of the infrastructure stuff – that’s what I’m hopeful about.

“That we’re going to have some answers finally after years of talking about some of these ideas.”

Justice said open communication is the key to unlocking the potential in those partnerships. He said the county administrator had a great relationship with Mayor Rick Kriseman and believes there is an opportunity to enhance that relationship further with Mayor-elect Ken Welch. Welch served on the county commission for 20 years before running for mayor.

“Nobody understands how the county functions and works better than Mayor Welch,” said Justice. “So, I think there’s an opportunity there to where we can be involved in projects earlier in discussions and hopefully help with the success of it.”

Justice said the county is often not involved in municipal projects until the planning is complete and a city is looking for funding. He would like to partner through the entirety of a project, not to overstep the commission’s boundaries but to help ensure success.

As a citizen of St. Pete, Justice said he is excited for Welch to lead the city. He also looks forward to serving as commission chair as Welch takes office. Justice noted that the two can now conduct conversations previously prohibited under commission rules.

Justice said that if the county and city can bring some of those extensive endeavors to a conclusion in the new year – such as a decision on the Rays – it will create a ripple effect that will change the trajectory of the entire area.

Justice explained that if the county, city and the Rays agreed on a new stadium tomorrow, it would create a clear path forward, and the next step would be to raise the required funding. If the team’s owners decided they are moving the franchise tomorrow, then that would change both the county’s and the city’s direction “completely.”

“Then we have to go, ‘what does a non-baseball team Pinellas County or Tampa Bay look like,'” said Justice. “That would free up funds in our TDC budget, and what are we going to do with that – how are we going to invest that in the community to keep moving forward without a team?

“Everyone in the back of their mind is thinking we need to set aside some money if we’re going to agree to that, and if that goes away, it opens up a lot of possibilities for other projects.”

When it comes to other problem-solving ideas for 2022, Justice would like to see the county focus more on projects “in our own backyard.” He noted the county has partnered with almost every cultural institution in the region, various sports teams and the Clearwater Aquarium. Now he wants to use the bed tax, Paying for Pinellas and federal funds to invest in county projects.

Justice said Fort DeSoto needs a new pier and is long overdue for maintenance. He said Raymond H. Neri park would see major improvements, and beach nourishment projects are also on the agenda for 2022.

“Some of that interior housekeeping that may not sound as sexy as a new stadium but is really important to the quality of life that we all enjoy every day,” added Justice.

Justice said he also looks forward to addressing infrastructure needs throughout the county and improving communities like High Point, Ridgecrest and Lealman. He said plans are in place, and the county has the funds for those projects, and now he wants to see the accomplishments.

“Especially in Lealman,” added Justice. “We’ve got the opportunity to inject – look, I don’t want to spread ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds over 20 years.

“I want us to invest as much of ARPA as we can where people can really see that.”

Justice said that as the county and St. Petersburg continue to grow dramatically through the new year, he hopes the area remains a place where people can grow up, get a good job and raise a family. Justice said he was able to do so knows many good people want to follow that path as well.

To ensure that path remains open for all, Justice said the region’s leaders need to keep things affordable and create, cultivate and bring the types of jobs that offset the rising cost of living.

Internally, Justice wants to see the county’s political leaders address the divisiveness and intensity that has permeated politics, especially on the national level. Justice said St. Petersburg always had more of a laid-back, Midwestern feel than other large counties in the state. He added that people were more pragmatic and focused on getting things done in years past, and he hopes that feeling is restored by this time next year.

“I hope we get back to a time where Pinellas was a spot of respectability, of calmness and people working together,” said Justice. “I want us to look like a calm place where folks respect each other and work together to improve the quality of life for us all.”

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