The St. Petersburg City Council approved incentives for small businesses and property owners on two high-profile streets as part of a larger plan designed to protect independent businesses.
Council members voted unanimously Thursday to approve the incentives. They have scheduled a hearing for April 18 on the second part of the plan, which makes land use and zoning changes on Beach Drive and Central Avenue from the waterfront to 31st Street. It puts limits on large storefronts most often associated with chain businesses.
Approval came despite concerns from Mayor Rick Kriseman, who said the plan won’t work without both the zoning changes and the incentives. Kriseman was not at an earlier meeting when the city council decided to split the plan into two separate votes.
“It makes us concerned that there isn’t as much of an appetite for the zoning piece. We do believe that is very important to accomplish what we all want to accomplish and the grant piece standing on its own won’t get us where all of us hope to get to,” Kriseman said. “My hope is that the skepticism that I have and some in the administration have is proven wrong and that the zoning piece does go forward.”
Kriseman had called for a public turnout at the Thursday meeting to support the Storefront Conservation Corridor Plan.
A handful of people spoke, including Manny Matalon, manager of Daddy Kool Records. Matalon said rising rent is forcing the Central Avenue record store to relocate to the Warehouse Arts District.
“What the city is proposing is a very fair compromise between development and people like myself who run small businesses,” Matalon said. “Nobody is saying that the developers can’t come in and charge $50 a square foot. What we’re asking is that the character of S. Petersburg with a number of small storefronts stays the same. Nobody is saying that small storefront can’t be a Starbucks … That’s not what this initiative is about. This initiative is about keeping the footprint similar.”
Kalamazoo Olive Co. is also moving from its current site on Central Avenue to the Edge District because of rent increases. Owner James Ryan was most concerned about the financial assistance included in the proposal.
“These funds were allocated at the beginning of the fiscal year. They still are not out in the community. I am here, but behind me there’s a whole row of people who need assistance from rising rents and being displaced from their current locations,” Ryan said.
Mack Feldman, vice president at Feldman Equities, which owns the BB&T Building on Central Avenue, asked the council to slow down and consider the consequences of the zoning changes. There’s a presumption that will hold rents down, but Feldman said it’s not necessarily true.
“Forcing a landlord to take a 40-square-foot box and split it into two restaurant boxes in many cases doubles the construction costs. You have to get two sets of kitchens. You’ll have more dividing walls, more plumbing, more access corridors, things like that,” Feldman said. “The effective result is that construction costs on a per square foot basis goes up. The only way the landlord can recoup that cost is through higher rent prices.”
But a spokesman from Keep St. Pete Local said there’s already been a lot of debate on the issue, which has been under discussion for about two years.
“Don’t let people come in and say they have to delay this because we weren’t given input. The mayor and his staff have done a wonderful job of getting input to try to make everyone happy,” the spokesman said.“This is about protecting the businesses that have given our city its unique character, that have put this city on the map, that have drawn more visitors and more investment and really helped us.”
Guidelines for the incentive program approved by the council provide a potential maximum award of $20,000 for eligible businesses — those that are at least 50 percent locally owned and have 50 or fewer employees, among other criteria. The program provides up to $10,000 for eligible property owners who have a three-year lease agreement with a local independent business.
A final decision on an incentive is expected within 45 business days after an application is submitted, with grants awarded within 30 calendar days after an agreement is signed.