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St. Pete City Council gets a do-over on controversial business grant program

Margie Manning

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Credit: St. Pete Greenhouse

Twenty-one businesses in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area will receive city grants to fix up their properties.

The City Council approved the grant awards Thursday, reversing course from an earlier decision. The Council also tightened the qualifications businesses will have to meet for future rounds of funding.

The grant program provides money to improve the aesthetics of a business or to increase the functional life of older commercial buildings. It became controversial earlier this year when two companies, the St. Petersburg Pregnancy Center and a Checkers restaurant franchise, qualified for the grants.

At a City Council meeting in April, critics said the pregnancy center, which does business as Next Stepp Pregnancy Center, was an anti-abortion center, and that the Checkers operation had other funding sources for building improvements. The City Council, which was required to accept or reject the entire list of proposed grant recipients, decided against awarding any grant funding at that April meeting.

Council members agreed to reconsider that decision after Next Stepp leaders and community supporters spoke out, saying the nonprofit Christian organization offers vital services such as giving diapers, milk and other supplies to young families.

Faith-based organizations provide social work and life-line services to clients, James McHale, director of the Family Study Center at University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, told the Council Thursday.

“People have talked about women’s rights. People have talked about religion … But this is also a black-white issue. In the Black community, faith-based organizations take care of their own,” McHale said.

The Council voted unanimously Thursday to approve this year’s funding for Next Stepp, Checkers and the other grant recipients, but they specified that faith-based organizations have to use the money for secular purposes. That’s consistent with state and federal law, city attorneys said.

Faith-based organizations will be required to provide services in a secular fashion in order to get grants in future funding rounds, under the new criteria approved by the City Council. Other changes in grant criteria include a requirement that healthcare providers have at least one licensed provider on staff and not-for-profit agencies must be 501(c) corporations. For national commercial franchises, at least 50 percent of their employees must live in the South St. Petersburg CRA and work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for grants. Additionally, the majority owner of a national commercial franchise must be a resident of the South St Pete CRA for more than a year, and the national franchise must pay a living wage to its workers.

The city is gearing up for the next round of commercial grant funding. A formal launch will be around July 1, with applications available around August 1 and a deadline for submittal around mid-September, said Rick Smith,  economic development manager.

The commercial matching grant program consists of two separate offerings — a commercial site improvement grant and a commercial building interior and tenant improvement grant. Businesses in the South St. Petersburg CRA can apply for funding from both programs for the same property. Grant awards are determined based on a scoring system.

Here’s a complete list of this year’s commercial grant recipients and their eligible award.

St. Petersburg Pregnancy Center (dba Next Stepp), 1221 2nd St. S., $20,000

Boys & Girls Club, 1011 22nd St. S., $40,000

Mari-Jean Hotel, 2349 Central Ave., $40,000

McCabe United Methodist Church, 2800 26th Ave. S., $15,930

Mt Zion Human Services, 945 20th St. S., $8,733

Mt Zion Human Services, 950 20th St. St., $2,241

Imagination Station, 2200 33rd St. S., $11,793

Sunshine City Lodge #255, 1331 18th Ave. S., $20,000

Kumjo Lee Properties, 3535 Central Ave., $18,702 and $8,776 (two grants)

St. Pete Fitness LLC, 2727 6th Ave. S., $20,000

Warehouse Arts District, 515 22nd St. S., $5,664

Checkers Restaurant, 100 34th St. St., $11,132 and $7,578 (two grants)

Empath Health, 330-340 49th St. S., $20,000

2105 Central Ave. LLC, 2105 Central Ave., $20,000 and $20,000 (two grants)

Delores Smith Academy Site, 1766 49th St. St., $20,000 and $14,769 (two grants)

Emery & Associates, 4699 Central Ave. $20,000 and $20,000 (two grants)

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