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St. Pete Beach receives $2 million state grant for wastewater system

Mark Parker

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Pictured left to right: St. Pete Beach Fire Chief Jim Kilpatrick, Planning Manager Wesley Wright, Director of Community Development Michelle Gonzalez, Commissioner Melinda Pletcher, Governor Ron DeSantis, City Clerk Amber LaRowe, Commissioner Mark Grill, Mayor Al Johnson, Chief Operations Officer Jennifer McMahon, City Manager Alex Rey, and Assistant City Manager Vincent Tenaglia. Photo courtesy of the City of St. Pete Beach.

St. Pete Beach has received $2 million in state funding that will allow the city to finalize the overhaul of its wastewater system, restoring the capacity for development and redevelopment years ahead of schedule.

Governor Ron DeSantis paid a visit to the island community last week, bearing good news for city administrators. DeSantis announced the Department of Economic Opportunity is awarding $2 million in Job Growth Grant funds to St. Pete Beach, money that will immediately go towards funding Phase II of the sewer expansion project. More specifically, the money is for upgrading the main pumping station to transport more wastewater off the island for treatment.

A development moratorium was enacted after a 2016 report concluded the aging infrastructure – built in 1957, when the city was first created – could not handle any new flows. For the last five years, the moratorium has stymied new growth and redevelopment, along with the jobs they create. The sewer expansion project enables the city to promptly lift the moratorium, making it vital to the economic health of the top-ranked beach in the U.S. (according to TripAdvisor).

“It (the moratorium) kicked out any multiunit apartment, hotel or condo building,” Mayor Al Johnson told the Catalyst. “You could still build a single-family home, but you could not build even a four-unit duplex or quadplex or something like that.”

Johnson said the city began noticing problems in 2015 with water intrusion after heavy rains. The antiquated system was overcapacity, which led to “some spillage under the streets and stuff like that.” City officials embarked on an aggressive program to fix the pipes and put cameras through all 58 miles of sewer pipes to determine their condition.

Some were in good enough shape to line with plastic liners, which Johnson said extends its life “almost indefinitely.” Other pipes needed replacing, requiring them to be dug up and causing road closures. After the moratorium in 2016, the city decided to completely overhaul the wastewater system to accommodate any amount of growth in St. Pete Beach.

“We were going to have to upgrade the system,” said Johnson. “So, we went ahead and said, ‘okay, let’s put in enough capacity to handle anything we could build out under our comprehensive plan.’

“So, that’s what we’ve been doing the last couple of years.”

Johnson said repairs have been ongoing, and the city has added more pressurized force mains, as much of the system is gravity-fed. That is part of Phase I, which started Oct. 1, 2020. He said this phase will be complete in January, several months ahead of schedule. The state grant is going towards Phase II – a pump station on the north end of the island that Johnson called “a choke point for the whole system.”

“It’s where we collect everything from the island and pump it under the intercoastal to St. Petersburg,” said Johnson. “Then they take it and treat it, and it goes to the Northwest Treatment Plant.”

Johnson said upgrading the pumping station to get the city where “we can handle anything” is about a $4 million job. The city is funding half, and the new grant will cover the other half.

“And bingo, we can do it right now,” added Johnson.

The upgrade was scheduled for 2023-2024, but Johnson now believes the project will be completed in late 2022 or early 2023. He said an engineering contract with detailed designs will be released at a commission meeting next week.

The moratorium was worded in a way that allows the city to issue a development order for multi-unit projects once a contract is signed for a capacity increase to the wastewater system. Johnson used the Miramar Hotel as an example, noting the city could approve a developer tearing down the 27-unit hotel and replacing it with a new building with parking underneath and twice as many hotel rooms.

“We’ve got a bunch of old 1950s vintage hotels,” said Johnson. “In the case of the Miramar, for instance, I think it was 27 units, and now it’s double. Every time you add a unit, you’re going to need more help.”

However, the moratorium still restricts the developer from getting a certificate of occupancy until the sewer project is complete. For a city that relies on the tourism industry, completing the overhaul of the wastewater system as soon as possible to allow for growth and redevelopment is vital to its economy.

“It’s going to add to the employment load here,” said Johnson. “Our only industry is tourism, and these people need a place to stay.”

“Being the number one beach in the country doesn’t hurt – I mean everyone wants to come here.”

 

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