Mayor Ken Welch completed one of his 2023 objectives Tuesday night, Dec. 5, hosting the last of his four City Hall On Tour events in south St. Petersburg.
The event, at the Childs Park Recreation Center, drew just over 100 residents and dozens of city officials, many of whom manned tables to discuss with constituents topics that ranged from education, youth opportunities and equitable development to neighborhood health and safety.
“We are here in District 7,” Welch said to applause in the Center’s gymnasium. “And we are here because we believe in equitable opportunities for everyone.” Welch took advantage of the opportunity to introduce one of his administration’s newest hires, Chief Equity Officer Carl Lavender, who started in the position last month.
“I have an awesome responsibility,” Lavender said. “And tonight is the start of the conversation.”
The prior three events were held at the Walter Fuller Recreation Center in northwest St. Pete, the Willis S. Johns Recreation Center in north St. Pete and the Lake Vista Recreation Center. Alizza Punzalan-Randle, Welch’s Managing Director, Communications said the mayor was partly inspired by former Mayor Bill Foster’s Mayor’s Night Out events.
“Mayor Welch very much admired that,” she noted. “Though he did wonder if it was possible to get 35 departments out on the road.”
The representative of one of those traveling departments was Taylor Paulin, a paralegal working for the Community Law Program. The CLP provides services and advice on issues ranging from landlord-tenant disputes and bankruptcy to the expungement of criminal records. Paulin said that the problem for residents is frequently that they either aren’t familiar with the services available or wait too long to use them.
“A lot of people don’t come to us until after they’ve already been to the courthouse,” Paulin lamented while manning her table outside the gymnasium. “I’d rather help you before you sign paperwork.” Paulin used as an example of issues that require immediate attention eviction notices which, she said, only allow five days to act.
The CLP does not have a steady funding stream, relying on the state and donations, Paulin said. But a recent grant from the city has helped and Paulin wanted on this night to let as many residents as possible know that “we are here to help. You never know what I can pull out of a hat.”
The four City Hall on Tour events were tailored to their host communities which, for Tuesday, meant a large display area for the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) of South St. Petersburg, one of three that have been set up in the city.
The main goals of the South St. Pete CRA is to promote reinvestment in housing and neighborhoods, commercial corridors, business development and education and workforce development within the 7.4 mile square mile area. “They are here to show your (residents) CRA money at work,” said Punzalan-Randle. “They are here for many reasons, such as helping small businesses get grants.”
Once the speakers were done, the residents had an hour or so to mingle with each other, city representatives, representatives of the city’s police and fire departments and others.
“I’m really impressed at the turnout,” local resident Ben Gibbs said “Having this amount of city departments here is helpful.” He noted that the area surrounding the park is “underdeveloped and food starving.”
He cited the many connections being made. “It brings people together,” he said. “It introduces them to (city) employees they might not otherwise see.”
Near the event’s end, Welch conducted one-on-ones with an arranged group of citizens. One group that occupied his attention prior was FAST (Faith & Action for Strength Together) which lists its main priorities (on its website) as affordable housing, criminal justice and water quality. Housing, according to one participant, was the topic discussed with the mayor Tuesday evening
“We pushed hard to have him set it (affordable housing) as one of his top priorities,” said Rev. Robert Ward, Pastor of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. FAST, Ward said, is looking to have Welch prioritize adding at least 1,000 units each year of his term for families of four earning 80% or less of Area Median Income (AMI). Ward said that the city is building a lot of housing for residents who make between 80-120% of AMI “and calling it affordable or workforce housing.”
Though incentivizing developers to build affordable housing can be difficult, Ward admitted, he said that, regardless, “it’s not unreasonable and is doable.”
In July, the Catalyst reported that City Council had allocated $2.15 million to the CRA for “unexpected requests” for additional housing subsidies.