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In 2021 St. Pete will choose the leaders that will shape the direction of St. Petersburg for the 2020s – and the whole century. We face many critical issues as a city, chief among them thoughtful redevelopment, affordability and equity. It is not enough to say we care: We need leaders who are open to new, innovative and unexpected solutions to the longstanding challenges we face.
But as administration moves with haste to buy a legacy at any price, we run the risk of making commitments that are costly and unwise. Nowhere is this more true than with our Municipal Services Center, the downtown home of many of our civil servants. The building has been in poor condition for years and needs millions of dollars in upgrades. It is not a suitable headquarters for our dedicated civil servants, and breaks up the cohesiveness of our thriving Central Avenue.
However, rather than address this in a timely fashion, administration is now moving to box in the next mayor with a generous deal for a like-for-like downtown replacement. The current building – and the land it sits on – will be sold for just $12.5 million, many millions below market value, which will go straight back to the developer (along with millions more) on the construction of a new property just a few blocks away.
In an era where remote work for most civil servants is and should be here to stay, this doesn’t just defy common sense – it defies a better and more equitable solution. That solution is staring us in the face: A relocation to Tangerine Plaza.
Located right in the heart of our Midtown community, Tangerine Plaza is a large shopping center already owned by the city, representing nearly 50,000 usable square feet. For years, administration has tried and failed to attract a grocery store to serve as an anchor tenant, all the while spending hundreds of thousands on upkeep for a property no one uses.
My proposal is simple. As have governments in Tampa, Miami, and Washington, D.C., we can relocate many of our civil servants to a renovated, already existing property. For St. Pete, this can be Tangerine Plaza.
Much of the space in our current Municipal building is unused, or unusable for our needs. And as many city employees can continue to work remotely during all or part of the week, we can stage them in a property with a much smaller footprint than an office building downtown.
The numbers make sense, and it will save our citizen taxpayers a fortune. We’ll be able to sell the existing Municipal Services Center for a fair market value without having to pay many millions for a brand new replacement.
I further propose taking some of the proceeds from this sale and putting them into a community development trust specifically dedicated to small business in underserved communities, including and especially Midtown.
To support our historically underserved communities, we will create a pool of resources to fund new, local, minority-owned businesses in Midtown. Additionally, we will bring a new pool of consumers in the form of city workers and municipal customers into the community, spurring the development of those businesses. We will stop paying to maintain a large empty commercial space and spark the return of grocery stores to the Midtown food desert via a free market solution, rather than expensive and ineffective subsidies.
At a time when property values are at an all time high and affordability is at an all time low, we can’t have perfectly good properties in our vibrant neighborhoods remain empty and unused at public expense. The choice between either supporting our communities or encouraging business growth is a false one: We can achieve both if we devote resources where they will do the most good. Tangerine Plaza will be just the beginning, and that’s why it will be my first priority as St. Petersburg’s Mayor.
Robert Blackmon has been a member of St. Petersburg City Council since November 2019. Last month he announced his candidacy for mayor, in the race to succeed Rick Kriseman, who is term-limited and will leave office in January 2022 after eight years.