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Community Voices: These need to be funding priorities in 2021

Robert Blackmon

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City Council member Robert Blackmon has been spearheading the campaign to re-open the Pinellas County Science Center building, which the city purchased in 2020.

Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

In January, each member of City Council presents their budget priorities for the next fiscal year, which functions as the starting point for the City’s budget process as a whole. This year’s is especially critical, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic turmoil. The priorities we’re highlighting — some aspirational, some essential — set the tone not just for this year’s budget but for the questions and priorities facing the next mayor. Here are some of my priorities, and why I feel they’re crucial for our city going into the next decade:

Funding for increased affordable housing options for vulnerable St. Pete residents; Increased resources to address issues surrounding homelessness and housing insecurity, specifically those faced by children and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

We found this a common theme across the Council. St. Petersburg must continue to be a city of opportunity for all. My district, District 1 covering much of the west side, has a plethora of affordable housing projects in the pipeline, comprising more than half of our 10-year citywide goal. We must continue to take care of those who are the backbone of our city and ensure that St. Petersburg remains a place where people of all backgrounds — especially all economic backgrounds — live and work.

Provide funding to construct a replica of the Historic Bait House from the Million Dollar Pier to be installed at the Pier marketplace.

While the original was destroyed, we can rebuild an exact replica quite affordably. Renting it out as a shop or a tour booth will bring in positive cash flow. For a pier with an annual subsidy well in the seven figure range, every bit helps, especially as it simultaneously beautifies the site and adds cultural value. It is good financial sense, and will have an excellent ROI while bringing a historically significant activity hub to the Pier.

Provide funding to hire a dedicated team of employees to pressure wash our city’s sidewalks.

Our city contains hundreds of miles of sidewalks that allow citizens to avoid taking cars on trips to live, work and play. Sidewalks experience a great deal of wear and tear, especially in a coastal city like ours. But at our current budget rate, it will take us something like 800 years to replace them. That’s why we need to hire a full time pressure washing crew to help maintain them. Mildew and algae eat away at the substrate of our sidewalks and begin to break them down.  If we become proactive about pressure washing, it will increase the life of existing sidewalks, beautify neighborhoods, minimize the need for repairs and reduce slip and fall and tripping accidents.

Additional funding for the Parks Department, especially for outdoor recreational spaces

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the value — and popularity — of our outdoor spaces. Innovations like outdoor gyms and exercise areas have helped our citizens maintain fitness and mental health during the pandemic, and these should be expanded.

Provide assistance towards the renovation of the Garnell Jenkins Trust building on 16th Street South

The historic headquarters of the St. Petersburg Chapter of the NAACP. In the ongoing struggle for racial justice, the local chapter must again have a permanent home.

Provide funding to begin the vertical construction of Fire Station 2.

Last year I fought to get funding for a replacement of Fire Station 2. It is currently housed in a converted single family home, and does not meet the needs of our citizens or first responders. We were successful in getting $1.25 million as a late addition to the budget for land acquisition and design. This year, we must begin to build.

Create a dedicated Lake Management Program to become proactive about water quality issues such as those that occurred at Jungle Lake and Harbor Isles.

Throughout our city and state, we have had widespread issues with algae blooms and fish kills. These are environmentally disastrous, and can wipe out fragile lake ecosystems. With a dedicated team, we can take a proactive response, as opposed to being at the mercy of outside contractors in an emergency. This will save us money as opposed to reactive measures during acute incidents. And job creation in the field of science is never a bad thing.

Funding towards STEM education for young people, especially those who are at risk, in partnership with other local agencies.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) careers are the future, especially as Tampa Bay becomes an emerging hub for cybersecurity companies. This is why I’m leading the effort to reopen the Science Center. In a city fully built out and constrained on three sides by water, we must be forward thinking in our plans for economic development. It is the services we provide — the work of our minds — that will carry us through the 21st century. Climate change, red tide and sea level rise will all be challenges we need to face this century, and it may be a child born here today that is capable of a huge advance in solving them. What resources will we provide that child to learn and grow?

The future of our economy — and the best paying jobs — will be in STEM. Now is the time to take advantage of this growth, and empower our local youth to lead the charge towards a brighter tomorrow.

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