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What a $39 million grant could mean for Lealman

Mark Parker

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An artist's illustration of a reimagined Joe's Creek, part of $84 million in projects planned for unincorporated Lealman. Screengrab, county documents.

Pinellas County officials continue investing significant resources in unincorporated and underserved Lealman, a growing community just outside St. Petersburg city limits.

Over 20,000 residents can look forward to $84 million in upcoming projects. At a Jan. 30 meeting, county commissioners unanimously approved a $39 million federal grant application to offset the cost.

The funding would support the Joe’s Creek Greenway Trail and channel restoration project; pedestrian crossing and stormwater drainage improvements on U.S. Hwy. 19/34th St. North; storm hardening and workforce development efforts at the Lealman Exchange; and public art placemaking initiatives. After the meeting, Commissioner Charlie Justice credited county staff for helping increase the area’s quality of life.

“The impact is multifaceted,” Justice told the Catalyst. “Recreational opportunities, trail connection to the greater Pinellas community, flood prevention, hurricane shelter improvements – all while relieving some budget pressures.

“This grant would be huge for Lealman and Pinellas County.”

The grant is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Resilience Regional Challenge. The county’s public works team is one of 120 organizations – from a pool of 869 – the agency selected to submit a final application.

If approved, officials would dedicate $13 million to the $59.5 million Joe’s Creek project. The 9,256-acre watershed includes portions of Kenneth City, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg.

However, the waterway resembles a large drainage ditch and is susceptible to flooding. The county plans to transform Joe’s Creek into a public amenity by planting new trees and vegetation and creating an elevated, permeable pavement multi-modal trail.

Joe’s Creek today. Image: Pinellas County Government.

Stabilizing its banks, improving culverts and removing sediment to increase channel flow will improve water quality and mitigate flooding. Kelli Levy, public works director, believes a reimagined Joe’s Creek will also foster much-needed economic development in the Lealman Community Redevelopment Area (CRA).

County documents call the community “disadvantaged” due to a high percentage of low-income households who have limited vehicle access. Jeremy Heath, the CRA’s board chairperson, previously said the Joe’s Creek project is “the most important thing for this area that’s going to happen in the next five to 10 years.”

Pinellas officials would also dedicate $1.15 million to the Lealman Exchange (LEX). The 77,000-square-foot campus is home to several nonprofits and workforce development organizations.

Its primary building also serves as a storm shelter. In September 2022, 172 residents found refuge from Hurricane Ian at the facility.

Stakeholders now hope to create the LEX Resilience Hub. The $3 million project includes upgrading or reconstructing an expansive gymnasium to withstand a Category 3 hurricane.

That would increase capacity by 480 people, or 160 special needs residents. Documents note that the project “directly aligns with NOAA’s risk reduction program by mitigating an existing shelter deficit in Pinellas County.”

A map of the area. Screengrab, county documents.

The county’s application states that the St. Petersburg Foundation, LEX’s operator, would also use the funding to create workforce development programs focused on climate resilience industries. It adds that the nonprofit’s partner network of over 79 local businesses and organizations would also bring environmental resiliency training to the facility.

Those include the St. Petersburg Innovation District and its Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. Executive director Alison Barlow was one of at least 10 local leaders to write letters supporting the county’s application.

“The Innovation District is particularly supportive of the collaborative nature of this project to promote community engagement and involvement and foster long-term community resilience,” Barlow wrote. “Our 50+ members have first-hand experience and expertise that comes from living and working directly on the coast … we have committed our network to support this important effort.”

Dr. Cynthia Johnson, director of Pinellas County Economic Development, said the projects would bring businesses and jobs to a lower-income community and an existing industrial park. She pledged her department’s support and offered to provide NOAA with current employment data to aid decision-making.

The county would dedicate $16.2 million to upgrade a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) culvert on U.S. Hwy. 19/34th St. North. The agency’s district drainage design engineer called the grant a “wise investment in public dollars” that will leverage other resources to create a “stronger community.”

Pinellas officials would allocate $3 million to public art installments throughout Lealman. The funding would also allow them to redirect $10 million in previously budgeted tax dollars.

In addition to the aforementioned benefits, Congresswoman Kathy Castor noted that enhanced greenspace would combat increasing urban heat. “I hope that Pinellas County, and its application, will be given every consideration,” she wrote.

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