At least three St. Petersburg City Council members want to explore the idea of a rebuilt or redesigned Sunshine Center.
Council member Darden Rice suggested considering a public-private partnership to redevelop the center, and two other council members, Council Chair Ed Montanari and Vice Chair Gina Driscoll, tentatively endorsed that suggestion.
The Sunshine Center, at 330 5th St. N., is a nationally accredited multi-service center where seniors gather for support, socialization, fitness and other services provided for older people. Prior to state and county stay at home and safer at home orders to stop the spread of Covid-19, the Sunshine Center was serving as a temporary site for city meetings for several months, while City Hall undergoes renovations.
Rice floated the idea for changes at the center Thursday when the city council met online as a Committee of the Whole to consider the capital improvements program budget for fiscal year 2021. A new $1.5 million heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for the Sunshine Center is among the projects that currently are unfunded for next year.
It’s one of several HVAC systems at city centers that need replacement, said Council member Brandi Gabbard, who advocated for trying to find a way to fund the project. “If one of these go out, especially the one at the Sunshine Center, and it cannot be repaired, what would we do?”
Rice said she had a different take on the issue.
“It seems like a lot of money to throw at a very old building that’s not really designed well for today’s purposes,” Rice said. “It’s sitting on some really important real estate. There could be an opportunity for the city to look at some sort of private-public partnership where the ground floor could have that public service to support our senior citizens … and we could look at a partnership where above that general area for the Sunshine Center, we could go vertical for potential housing for low-income seniors.”
Montanari said he had the same thoughts. “Are we throwing good money after bad? Should we rethink that building?” asked Montanari.
The city’s budget staff has also discussed the idea of a public-private partnership at the center, said Mike Jeffries, administrator of Leisure Services.
Driscoll said she “loved the idea of reimagining the Sunshine Center” long-term, but she also had short-term concerns.
“I totally agree we should not be throwing good money after bad, but it’s never been more top of mind for all of us that the health of our seniors is really everyone’s responsibility. That includes air quality in places like the Sunshine Center,” Driscoll said.
“I urge you to look at that long term project and developing a new plan for the Sunshine Center, but in the short term let’s see how we can do something to improve the HVAC system at the Sunshine Center.”
The city’s preliminary capital spending plan for FY 2021 is set at $120 million but could change, city budget officials told council members. Restrictions on business operations imposed under the state stay at home order are likely to impact the revenue the city counts on from the Penny from Pinellas one percent sales tax. Penny for Pinellas funds many of the city’s capital projects.