Education, partnerships and community benefits agreements are among the ideas candidates for the St. Petersburg City Council offered when asked how they would strengthen local businesses.
Seven of the eight candidates on the ballot in the Nov. 5 general election attended an Oct. 8 candidates’ forum at the Disston Heights Civic Association, one of several forums and debates that have been held in the past few weeks. There are two candidates from each of four odd-numbered districts in the city. Voters citywide will pick a winner from each district in the general election next month.
At the Disston Heights forum, the candidates responded to questions about affordable housing, traffic, scooters, sewer lines and city support for the Tampa Bay Rays as well as other subjects.
One topic that sparked unique perspectives was about local business.
Rob Lorei, news and public affairs director at WMNF, and the host and managing editor of Florida This Week at WEDU, posed this question: “Keep St. Petersburg Local has been a strong proponent of supporting locally owned small and large businesses. Outside investors are buying local properties and pricing small local businesses out of their rental retail space. What will you do to support Keep St. Pete Local, our small businesses in the city of St. Petersburg and Localtopia, when so many small businesses are being priced out of their physical locations?”
Each candidate had 90 seconds to respond. Here are their answers, in the order in which they responded.
Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, District 7 incumbent
That is truly what I see happening. I support Keep St. Pete Local around local businesses. I shop local as much as I can. Our enterprises have to do more to support small businesses in our area. One thing I want to mention is that we all know that Tropicana is going to be redeveloped. One thing I want to make sure of is that when we do redevelop the Trop, there is room for small businesses. I don’t want anybody priced out. I have been working with staff on a community benefits agreement to ensure that we all are welcome at the Trop, we all will be able to shop there, and that from that community benefit agreement, something is built on the south side, whether it’s affordable housing or whatever. Yes, I do support keeping our small businesses in business.
Eritha Brandis Cainion, District 7 challenger
It’s interesting that my opponent supports Keep St. Pete Local, and making sure small businesses aren’t being priced out throughout the city, because it’s big developers that caused that in the first place. You’re being backed by these big developers, your interest is not for advocating for these small businesses that are getting priced out. John Catsimatidis [founder, Red Apple Real Estate] buying up a whole block of Central Avenue, Miami real estate investors — these are all people who put money in [Mayor Rick] Kriseman’s pocket and by virtue of being in Kriseman’s pocket, they’re in my opponent’s pocket, because Kriseman’s Sunrise Pac is funding my opponent. [NOTE: Kriseman’s Sunrise Pac contributed $1,000 to Wheeler-Bowman earlier this year, according to Florida Politics.] That’s no way to keep St. Petersburg local. We have to move away from just trying to benefit big developers. The people of this city are clamoring for a future. We have a responsibility to give it to them. In regards to the Tropicana Field baseball stadium and what happened there and the discussion that has to be had, recognizing an entire community was destroyed — 100 black businesses were destroyed, 300 homes were destroyed — there is no community benefits agreement, a low percentage sliver of that you can give me and my community to heal that. That whole land has to be returned back to create genuine economic development, institutions, black-owned businesses owned and controlled by the black community that will contribute to the overall tax base of the city and we’ll be able to employ people to work on this project — subcontractors, contractors, people we can employ in the process of trying to create this really big vision.
Deborah Figgs-Sanders, District 5, currently represented by Steve Kornell, who cannot run again because of term limits
With small business enterprises as one of my focuses, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that yes, some of our smaller businesses are being outpriced, but we have to understand that as council members we cannot impact private enterprise. What we can do if it is city-owned land is to incentivize those businesses that would like to come in and keep their employment local. That can be associated with a community benefit agreement but that has to be something delivered at the very beginning of each transaction and sale. One thing I’ve definitely noticed is that our small businesses need to be ready. Pinellas County increased their budget by $60,000 in assisting small businesses to be ready for these deals when they happen. I’ve asked on several occasions to provide a list of our small business enterprises that are ready, willing and able. If you have opportunities but you don’t have the resources to provide to these local businesses, then we’re not assisting them at all. So what I’ve asked them to do was to please make sure our small businesses are ready to accept contracts, to take some of our larger businesses and let some of the smaller ones participate in an apprenticeship program, something like a buddy program so that if they’re not ready to be full business operators and understand and assume the operational costs on their own, they could still work under their own name and earn the credentials to become a certified vendor with the city of St. Petersburg.
Trenia Cox, District 5
I mentioned earlier in my introduction that I ran the city’s minority business enterprise program. As part of running that program, we had a mentor-protegee program that ran through our Chamber. We took small businesses, developing businesses, and matched them with thriving larger ones so they could grow. What happens is, during the RFP process, request for proposals, the larger entity would get the contract, but they would subcontract with the smaller one so they could grow. They built that partnership. That’s one of the ways. Being priced out is a very serious issue. I know there are groups that advocate for local preferences, like FAST, and that’s a good thing, but we can do it only if it’s a city contract now, because we’re talking about private enterprise. The other piece is helping them to understand what it takes to start a business. We have the Greenhouse in the city of St. Petersburg. You can learn how to build a business and I would encourage people to take advantage of those kind of opportunities. We have SCORE, people who have actually run businesses. They bring that expertise and training to the table. That’s important as well. I think what we should do in terms of small businesses — we don’t want them priced out but we have to understand that we have to let the capitalist process move forward. When we do have control, when it’s a city project, we have control of stipulations about local preferences and you can rate proposals before you.
Orlando Acosta, District 3 challenger
I definitely would love to keep local businesses local. I would like to throw one idea out, that maybe we’re looking at the problem too narrowly. The problem is actually bigger. We think always of Central Avenue, of the Trop site. It’s so much more than that. You go through the older neighborhoods in town, and you can see the vestiges of businesses of long time past. You can see where in Euclid-St. Paul there used to be a little commercial district. You go to where the Bier Boutique is right now. That hadn’t been there a few years ago. In historic Old Northeast, there’s now an apartment building that you know just 50 or so years ago was a little convenience store and a few other things. All these small local businesses that made neighborhoods rich and colorful and vibrant, and we’ve just got to bring a lot of that back. And if big business drives the little ones out of Central Avenue, we still have local business all around the city and greater opportunities for everyone else to get started. I think you need to look at the problem differently. We have a lot more opportunity than we think we have.
[NOTE: Incumbent Ed Montanari did not attend the forum, but he provided a response at the request of St. Pete Catalyst, below.]
Robert Blackmon, District 1, currently represented by Charlie Gerdes, who cannot run again because of term limits
I am a small business owner and I want to bring that mindset to council. I think it’s lacking right now and I think I can help out in that way and help make some of these decisions. I think District 1 is a great example of how you can have harmony between small businesses and also chains. You see all the chains essentially in the city are all in District 1. You have [Tyrone Square] mall, you have the Bonefish Grill, but also a really cool commercial corridor on the west end on Central Avenue. There’s a lot of really cool shops. A couple of those mixed-use buildings my grandfather built in the late ’50s. They’re still in use and there’s a lot of really cool local businesses there. Now as far as having support for local businesses — yes, there are people who want to be in one area, like Central Avenue downtown. But this could also be a positive for our city. On 16th Street South, MLK South, there are a lot of vacant storefronts and there are people who would love to open businesses, but they don’t know how or they need mentoring. We need to work with and support them. We already have an LGBT tracking program for LGBT-owned businesses that Councilwoman Gina Driscoll championed. We have a minority business tracker. We do support people, but how have we done from a city perspective? We can also benefit them by helping the Chamber. We also need to work on public works. In the medians on 16th Street South, all the palm trees are chopped down. There’s weeds everywhere. The commercial signage is very old. We can support them by beautifying the area and trying to attract people to the area.
John Hornbeck, District 1
If you go to my website, votehornbeck.com, you’ll see one of the reasons I think St. Pete is so great is our focus on local and small businesses. I met with one of the presidents of Keep St. Pete local, Olga [Bof], and she was telling me one of the ways we can start is individual responsibility. Eat local, go to Casita instead of Applebee’s. Shop local. As a small business owner myself — I started my own law firm a couple of years ago — and when I started my dad didn’t give me any money. What he did give me was better. He gave me great advice on how to start, ways he succeeded, investments that paid off, things he’d done wrong. One of the great things we have in this city is a $12 million business incubator. I think this is going to be incredible because what we need to do is set people up for success. The saying is give a man a fish, he’s fed for the day. Teach a man to fish, he’s fed for life.
Ed Montanari, District 3 incumbent (in a written response to the St. Pete Catalyst)
St. Petersburg is a unique place. We value our local businesses and it is important to me that as our city grows it does not lose its unique character. As a member of the City Council I will continue to work to strike the right balance between attracting new business to our city and making sure that our existing business have all they need to be successful. That means working closely with the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corporation to encourage smart growth initiatives and shop local marketing campaigns. We also need to do everything we can to empower our local business and to allow them to thrive.