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Partnership pauses plans for downtown improvement district

Mark Parker

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Downtown St. Petersburg's historic Williams Park bandshell is in disrepair. Local stakeholders hope a new foundation can bolster those and other area improvements. Photo by Mark Parker.

A group of business leaders remains intent on improving St. Petersburg’s William Parks and “First Block”; however, they will do so through a foundation rather than a special assessment district.

Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, has led efforts to invest in urban management services found in several other cities, including Tampa. He ramped up efforts to gather community feedback and formulate a framework in June 2023.

Narrowly focused special assessments differ from taxes, which officials deposit into a general fund and support citywide initiatives. The Partnership proposed a $1 fee per $1,000 of taxable property value. The Downtown Improvement District would receive about $2 million annually.

“Perhaps not surprisingly, people don’t like paying more taxes,” Mathis said Tuesday (Jan. 23). “But particularly, it was challenging for the condominium community right now.”

Jason Mathis (left), CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, with John Catsimatidis, founder of the Red Apple Group, at a recent luncheon. Photo by Mark Parker.

Speaking at Tuesday’s Developer’s Council Meeting, noted that association fees have skyrocketed since the governor signed a new safety bill into law. The legislation, which mandates periodic repairs and inspections, stems from the Champlain Towers South condominium suddenly collapsing in Surfside, Florida, in 2021.

Mathis said stakeholders believed the district was a “great idea” and needed. They also wanted him to revisit the topic in a couple of years.

The Downtown Partnership took that feedback to heart and narrowed its focus. The district would have extended from the waterfront east to 5th Street, between 5th Avenue North and South.

Improvements, including beautification, cleanliness and safety programs, will now center on St. Petersburg’s oldest park and block. “Both of these are beloved parts of our city,” Mathis said.

“They both could use a little bit of investment, a little bit of attention.”

The Partnership now hopes to mirror the Waterfront Parks Foundation’s success. The organization, founded in 2012, is widely credited for revitalizing what it refers to as the “Emerald Necklace on the Bay.”

Mathis is establishing a Williams Park Foundation that would similarly rely on private donations to fund significant improvements. The public amenity opened at 3rd Street and 1st Ave. N. in 1888.

The Williams Park bandshell, designed by renowned architect William B. Harvard, has served St. Pete since 1954. However, the facility is in disrepair, and the downtown greenspace is now known for its homeless population.

Angelo is among the many homeless residents who congregate in Williams Park. Photo by Mark Parker.

City officials have allocated $1.5 million to upgrade the bandshell. Mathis said the Partnership requested an $800,000 state appropriation to aid reconstruction.

“So, we’re going to do some major capital improvements to the park,” he said. “And then we’re hoping to raise $300,000 to $400,000 a year to essentially do a pilot project on what a special services or business improvement district might look like.”

Mathis stressed that the initiative was not “kicking homeless people out of the park.” He said the goal is to increase usage and programming.

“Once the bandshell is complete, we would love to see the park activated every day,” Mathis added. “We would like to see the park maintained at the same level as the (St. Petersburg) Pier, with security there on a regular basis.”

Those efforts, which include maintenance and landscaping beyond what the city provides, would also extend to the adjacent First Block. The area encompasses several buildings – most predate the 1910s – along Central and 1st Avenues and between 2nd and 3rd Streets North.

Mathis said city officials welcome the public contributions. Those include Mike Jefferis, community enrichment administrator and director of parks and recreation.

In September 2023, local author Peter Kageyama expressed his belief that St. Petersburg College’s (SPC) Downtown Center could play a significant role in Williams Park’s revitalization. He told the Catalyst that the school could use the space for open-air classes and as a quad.

Mathis said he “immediately” discussed the idea with Dr. Tonjua Williams, SPC president and a Partnership board member. “They’re definitely an entity we would use to activate that … If we’re hiring St. Pete ambassadors, St. Pete College students would be great to fill that role.”

Mathis said nearby bar and restaurant owners reached out to the Partnership after recent reporting. “We’ve talked about what services we might provide to that block that would help make it – still funky, still interesting and a little bit gritty, but a little less sketchy,” he said.

“We hope we can show real improvement with a relatively small investment.”

 

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    David

    January 30, 2024at1:19 am

    The downtown improvement district is an attempt to turn our downtown into a private fiefdom. We’re talking about letting business owners privatize and control government functions, including giving police power over to private security, deputized by business owners. This scheme needs to be stopped permanently.

  2. Avatar

    EF Hazzard

    January 28, 2024at3:41 am

    Before establishing a Williams Park Foundation, Mr Mathis should consider the reality of a 2mil (+) “small” investment for a park to house the homeless. In Florida’s notorious heat, I’m doubtful the students, if there are many on that campus, would be willing mingle at Williams Park instead of an air conditioned classroom with wifi. Just one opinion, but cannot see this as a ‘if you build it they will come’ concept.

  3. Mark A Parker

    Mark A Parker

    January 26, 2024at5:25 pm

    I think naming rights for the bandshell, provided it is a local, established company, is a great idea.

  4. Avatar

    Velva Lee Heraty

    January 25, 2024at11:57 pm

    Excellent concepts!

  5. Avatar

    Randy

    January 25, 2024at8:28 pm

    Homeless camps are ruining the downtown parks in St Pete. Our parks are not meant for this. Williams Park has so much potential. Something needs to be done.

  6. Avatar

    John Donovan

    January 25, 2024at4:55 pm

    Naming rights = $$$ ??

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