A local nonprofit will continue operating from one of the area’s most underserved communities after Pinellas County officials agreed to relinquish the building it leases in a $1.2 million sale.
The Florida Dream Center’s St. Petersburg address belies its headquarters at a former Lealman fire station. The unincorporated area just outside the city limits is home to over 20,000 people – and many lack access to transportation, grocery stores and safe, affordable housing.
No county commissioners questioned the organization’s impact at their Nov. 14 meeting. However, a previously discussed plan to provide the Dream Center with a permanent home sparked debate.
“I understand and recognize all of the great things you guys do in Lealman,” said Commissioner Brian Scott. “I just have some concerns with donating property and structures to not-for-profits. I’m not comfortable with that.”
Commissioner Dave Eggers also expressed hesitation to “donate” land valued at $1.2 million and earmarked for affordable housing initiatives. In 2016, county officials used Penny for Pinellas land acquisition funding to acquire the property at 4017 56th Ave. N. for $640,000 from the Housing Finance Authority.
In 2017, the Dream Center began leasing the building and addressing the surrounding community’s extensive unmet needs. Laura Simkanich, a longtime resident and volunteer, became emotional at the thought of the organization leaving Lealman.
According to its website, the Dream Center has provided nearly a million meals, distributed 1.2 million pounds of food, completed 93 revitalization projects, removed 47 tons of debris, provided over 3,500 people with “self-sufficiency” assistance $and graduated 68 work readiness program participants – since Jan. 1.
“Many of these students are low-risk inmates who want to succeed when they are getting out of jail,” Simkanich said. “We have made a huge impact on Lealman.
“If they were to lose their location, there would be a large population left that would go hungry, go without lights and may not be able to keep their homes.”
However, the two-story building needs significant repairs, and county officials are using the surrounding land for an affordable housing development. Steve Cleveland, CEO of the Dream Center, said some of those residents will likely need the organization’s services.
Cleveland told commissioners he spent the past year and a half scouring the area for a new headquarters. He said a promising agreement collapsed, and Lealman lacks suitable alternatives.
“And nothing we could find within the price range that we were going to be able to afford,” Cleveland added.
Eggers and Scott remained steadfast that while they appreciated the Dream Center’s work, they would prefer that the county retain ownership of its building. After the meeting, Commissioner Charlie Justice called the debate “troubling.”
Commissioners approved allocating $1.8 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to the Dream Center in June. Justice explained that the organization would spend $600,000 renovating the aging building – alleviating the county’s need to complete “some serious upgrades” – and $1.2 million to buy the facility.
Scott suggested that the organization could complete renovations and continue leasing the facility while commissioners dedicate the remaining $1.2 million to other ARPA projects. “Then the county could still retain ownership of that building,” he said. “Just another way of slicing the cat.”
Justice noted that the $1.2 million in federal funding would return to the county’s land acquisition fund once the organization purchased the property. That would essentially double the commissioners’ previous investment.
In addition, Justice stressed that county officials would reacquire the building at no cost if the Dream Center closes or stops providing critical services. “To me, this is a win-win-win type of thing …,” he added.
“It’s a nonprofit in the middle of a neighborhood, but it’s a neighborhood that needs the services they provide,” Justice said. “We want them serving Lealman because that’s what they do, and that’s where the need is.”
Commissioners voted 6-2 to sell the property to the Dream Center, with the previously stated stipulations, for $1.2 million. Eggers and Scott dissented.