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South St. Petersburg CRA is working, Kriseman tells Urban Institute

Margie Manning

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Kate Queram, staff correspondent, Route Fifty, interviews St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

The decision to invest in people in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area is paying off, Mayor Rick Kriseman told policymakers from across the United States at the Urban Institute.

“It’s making a difference. I know it’s making a difference because we’re seeing our poverty rate drop in that area at a rate faster than the state or national average,” Kriseman said. “We’re now seeing property values in that CRA increase dramatically.”

While Community Redevelopment Areas historically have spent funds on “hard” infrastructure – streets and buildings — Kriseman said he wanted to change the paradigm with the South St. Petersburg CRA.

“Instead of investing in hard infrastructure, let’s invest in soft infrastructure and by that I mean people … Instead of just spending the money we generate on buildings and streetscaping, we’re investing the money in job training apprenticeship programs, existing businesses that want to expand or want to take what they are doing and make it look better so it’s more sustainable. We’ve investing in startups by giving them seed money, or if they’re in need of taking their business to that next level, which sometimes is harder than getting it started, providing some of the resources so they can do that.”

He cited the efforts to bring businesses to Commerce Park, the long-vacant land in the CRA between 22nd and 26th Streets South, and 6th Avenue South to Interstate 275. The city is requiring that a specific percentage of the potential workforce at businesses in the area be CRA residents. If the developer of the area exceeds employment goals, it will get a break on the purchase price of the city-owned land.

“When you tell a company who knows they’re going to have to hire people anyway that as long as you hire from this particular area of the community we’re going to give you money off your purchase price, they like that. We found that companies and developers have been very receptive to this idea,” Kriseman said.

The driving force for the CRA and other initiatives is the city’s vision statement, which says in part, “St. Petersburg will be a city of opportunity where the sun shines on all who come to live, work and play.”

“Everything we do, every line item in our budget, every policy that we put in place, every program we create, is all done with the intention of trying to get us to become that city of opportunity where the sun shines on all,” Kriseman said.

Government can’t and shouldn’t do that alone, Kriseman said, adding that he’s focused on creating partnerships with nonprofits, businesses and schools. He said the city’s new Financial Empowerment Center is an example of one successful partnership.

He was asked if he gets pushback on his work.

“The only real pushback we’ve had is the old guard,” Kriseman said. “The old guard is used to the way things were and have always been. They don’t like change … We’ve had to pull them with us and in some instances say if we can’t get them on board, it’s the right thing and we’ll do it anyway.”

Partnerships and community involvement limits pushback and makes new programs more sustainable.

“I get asked all the time, don’t you worry when you are gone that all the programs you are putting in place will go away,” Kriseman said. “My feeling is if I can get the community to buy into what we’re doing and to look at it as if this is their program and they are partners with the city … then even when I’m gone they won’t let those program go away, because they feel invested in them.”

His offered some tips to other mayors facing similar challenges: Lean on your colleagues. Try innovative programs and don’t be afraid of failure. Engage the community.

“I love being in a city where the community cares about what is happening and about each other. The more engaged they are, the more willing they are to be part of the solution.”

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