We’re asking thought leaders, business people, and creatives to talk about 2023 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 2023.
As a female African American business owner and community advocate, Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders brings a unique perspective to both the dais and her plans for the new year.
Her three priorities in 2023 intersect; Figgs-Sanders believes increasing educational opportunities and equity for underserved populations will also help reduce gun violence. While she is proud of what city officials – particularly Mayor Ken Welch – accomplished in those areas throughout the past year, Figgs-Sanders also realizes much work remains.
She called following St. Petersburg’s Structural Racism and Disparity Study recommendations a good start, as was creating an Office of Supplier Diversity (OSD). While Figgs-Sanders would like its name to reflect all areas of economic development, she said when those opportunities come, minority-owned businesses “need to be ready to answer.”
Figgs-Sanders said ensuring readiness is a critical focus for the OSD, “however, will it be ready for Tropicana Field (redevelopment)?”
“I’m praying that it will be, and that’s one of the goals that I have in working with (OSD Manager) Latisha Binder.”
Figgs-Sanders relayed a unique idea to ensure local minority-owned small businesses can meet the many needs that will soon arise from redeveloping the historically Black former Gas Plant District. She called it a “business buddy” partnership program, where established contractors mentor their burgeoning counterparts on large projects.
That would provide invaluable experience for smaller business owners not quite ready to tackle expansive projects, explained Figgs-Sanders. She also wants to include a certification process to help new companies reach that next level.
“I want to be that one-on-one, hands-on voice,” said Figgs-Sanders. “Because I have lived experiences with it.”
Addressing gun violence has long been a focus for Figgs-Sanders. She credited the St. Petersburg Police Department and Chief Anthony Holloway for their “phenomenal” partnership on several community campaigns and programs throughout the years.
While she noted that murders in the city dropped precipitously in 2022 compared to the two years prior, Figgs-Sanders relayed she received a sobering text message Friday morning. It was the assistant police chief alerting the councilwoman that 15-year-old Zykiquiro Lofton was gunned down Thursday night.
The department’s public information officer later announced officers arrested and charged a 17-year-old suspect.
Figgs-Sanders, whose District 5 encompasses the city’s south side, said Lofton was the first young person killed due to gun violence in 2022.
“One life lost is too much,” she added. “Because that one life impacts more than just that person and their family.”
She hopes to increase proactive rather than reactive efforts to mitigate a problem disproportionately affecting the city’s Black community. Figgs-Sanders plans to bolster programs like Hidden Voices to provide holistic support – such as employment and educational opportunities – so St. Pete’s youth don’t turn to a life of crime.
A seemingly simple yet critical aspect of reducing gun violence, explained Figgs-Sanders, is instilling the value of life.
That leads to her third priority in 2023, improving the educational ecosystem. She noted many of the city’s youth graduate with high grades and brimming with potential, yet do not want to stay home and contribute to the community.
She said a lack of jobs and affordable housing is a key contributor. As the city moves into a new year, Figgs-Sanders wants “to incentivize them to want to stay and provide those talents.”
“Provide those skills here at home,” she said. “To continue to give back here locally, to the City of St. Petersburg.”
Figgs-Sanders also expressed her desire to work with Dr. Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College, to align course requirements among the city’s higher education institutions.
For example, Figgs-Sanders said a student who didn’t meet their goals at Eckerd College could find success at the University of South Florida or Stetson University. She hopes to ensure that when a student leaves one school for another, they “won’t be starting from scratch.”
Figgs-Sanders believes incentivizing the community’s young, bright minds to stay at home would benefit the entire city, directly or indirectly.
She relayed that her ultimate goal for 2023 is to see a more unified city and council. Figgs-Sanders would love to see politics removed from discussions and the focus remain on what is best for constituents.
She said conversations should start with “yes” or “why not” rather than “no,” and agreeing to disagree is always an option. The incoming city council vice-chair wants local leaders to address issues on a case-by-case basis and realize that what some might perceive as a minor impact can make a significant difference.
Figgs-Sanders plans to look at city-owned land and incentivize developers to increase St. Petersburg’s affordable housing stock and hopes to increase renter protections in the new year. Most of all, she wants to see action rather than more studies, and said some initiatives take “entirely too long” to bear fruit.
“When I look back on 2023, I want to see us not take a step forward but many steps forward,” said Figgs-Sanders. “Together, for everybody.”