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St. Pete City Council committee backs Science Center revival

Margie Manning

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City Council member Robert Blackmon has been spearheading the campaign to re-open the Pinellas County Science Center building, which the city purchased in 2020.

Efforts to revive the Science and Technology Education Innovation Center in west St. Petersburg gained momentum Thursday.

The City Council’s Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee voted to recommend the full council include the Science Center restoration on a list of projects that are paid for by the Weeki Wachee Fund, a designated fund for parks, recreation, beatification and preservation.

“I want us to be known as the city of education. This in my opinion fits in with that vision. I see the Science Center as a laboratory, so students learn the academics of STEM education in school and put it in practice in an entity like the Science Center,” Council Chairman Ed Montanari said.

The Science Center, at 7701 22nd Ave. N., has been vacant since November 2019, when the city of St. Petersburg bought the 27,400-square-foot building and seven acres of land for $3.15 million from CareerSource Pinellas. The city is using part of the property to expand the capacity of the nearby Northwest Water Reclamation Plant, but planned to demolish the Science Center building.

Council member Robert Blackmon has been pushing to restore the building instead. “Let’s work together to build a city where science is the backbone of our decision making, and becomes our path towards a brighter future,” he wrote in a Facebook post on Jan. 4.

Great Explorations Children’s Museum potentially could operate the Science Center, Blackmon said.

Blackmon’s idea has drawn support from organizations such as the National Forensic Science Technology Center and the Jungle Terrace Civic Association, as well as from Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters, Pinellas County School Board member Caprice Edmonds, and Florida Sen. Darryl Rouson. Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, has said he will request state funding for a restoration project. 

In a Dec. 7 memo, Mayor Rick Kriseman said the city could hold off on demolition for eight months to give Blackmon and Rouson time to fully explore a plan to bring the Science Center back to life.

Kriseman said he’s generally supportive of the project concept, but with conditions. Because of revenue shortfalls caused by Covid-19, Kriseman said he’s unwilling to spend any general fund revenue on an appraisals or other professional fees. He also won’t spend general fund revenue to buy the property from the Public Works department or to operate it.

However, Kriseman said he could support the project if the City Council appropriated money from the Weeki Wachee fund for an appraisal, renovation fees and the property purchase.

“Please note that the extent of my efforts at raising funds for this project will be limited solely to advoking for State funding during this next legislative session,” Kriseman wrote.

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