Tax district could improve fortunes of small Pinellas community

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Steven Girardi

Published July 10, 2015

CLEARWATER – The redevelopment hopes in the aging and neglected Lealman neighborhood have nothing to do with high-rise condominiums, art museums or waterfront attractions.

The needs in this impoverished pocket of mid-Pinellas County are much more basic. Resources to feed poor children, parenting classes and job training programs, an accessible neighborhood park, alleys free of trash and drug dealers, and roadside ditches clear of clutter.

This is not downtown St. Petersburg. It is not downtown Tampa.

It is a place where success is measured by hiring a single trash hauler, so garbage trucks come once or twice a week instead of a different company showing up nearly every day, and trash cans aren’t on the streets all the time, said Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association.

“There is so much. I don’t even know where to start,” he said.

But Neri, 78, a 65-year resident of Lealman, is optimistic. The Pinellas County Commission last week unanimously approved creating a Community Redevelopment District in the area.

The Sunshine City MHP located along 28th Street N in Lealman.


In the next month, the county will assemble a local advisory board to make a list of projects for the area. And, more importantly, it will establish a tax increment financing district to provide the money to do those projects.

In TIF districts, the local government freezes the tax revenue at the current rate. As property values and tax revenue increase, the extra money stays within the district to make improvements.

“That is really one of the main concrete advantages to having a CRA,” said Frank Bowman, community outreach and development manager for the county Planning Department.

Because of that money, CRAs have been a popular tool for years for cities to improve poor neighborhoods and, primarily, to enhance downtown business districts and development, Bowman said.

The city of Tampa has eight of them, including the Channel District where Jeff Vinik plans a $1 billion development, another in East Tampa created 10 years ago to revitalize one of the city’s poorest areas, and a downtown district created in 1983.

In Pinellas, Safety Harbor, Dunedin and Clearwater are among the cities that have established CRAs. St. Petersburg has several, including the downtown waterfront and, most recently, the Southside CRA that has stretched and redefined the limits of how CRA money is used.

More than roads, water pipes and other infrastructure projects, the St. Petersburg plan approved in May provides job training programs, educational opportunities, financial assistance for small, local businesses and support to create and rehabilitate affordable housing, among other things.

The TIF is expected to raise $66 million during the next 30 years for an area where one-third of the 34,000 residents fall below the federal poverty line.

The Lealman CRA is expected to follow along the same lines as the Southside CRA. The two areas also share another distinction: Each was ranked among Pinellas’ five poorest communities in a 2013 report by the Department of Health and Human Services on the impact of poverty.

That led to the county’s decision to create the Lealman CRA, its first ever for an unincorporated area of the county.

“I’ve been screaming for it for the last five years,” said Neri, who was grateful to see it come to fruition.

The 4-square-mile Lealman district, roughly between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg on the north and south, and Interstate 275 and Kenneth City on the east and west, is plagued with high amounts of street crime, crumbling housing, code violations, inadequate streets and parks, EMS and fire calls, and health issues, according to county studies.

In the next month, the county will put together an advisory board of Lealman residents, property owners, business owners, and other stakeholders who will make a list of projects.

Bowman expects such things as child care, job training, maybe a community police office, youth programs, and support for the neighborhood’s Police Athletic League to be on that list.

“Those are essential needs in these very low income communities,” he said.


The practical value of CRAs lies in the TIF money, Bowman said, but they also send a signal to investors and builders who may have shied away from poor, unstable communities.

“From a public relations and political perspective, it demonstrates that a government body is focused on improving an area or a neighborhood,” Bowman said. “That, in turn, can get the attention and give confidence to builders, businesses and investors who might be attracted to the area.”

Those are the people who can make lasting change by building new houses, fixing old ones, starting businesses and employing people. Better roads, drainage, sidewalks and other infrastructure improvements are also part of the plan, Bowman said.

How much money the TIF will create for Lealman is uncertain, pegged to property values, the real estate market and property taxes. Bowman and Neri expect it will take about a year to sort out the money and for the community advisory board to set goals, priorities and strategies.

Neri will be part of that board. Already he is thinking about supporting PAL, which offers recreation and education programs and feeds poor kids who otherwise go hungry. A park needs to be improved, parenting classes are needed, alleys need to be policed, and he talks about culinary classes to job-train high school kids at the former Clearview Elementary School the school board has given to the community.

“There are a lot of people here who are just flat-out poor,” Neri said. “We want to get things done. We don’t want to be talking about them 10 years from now at a meeting.”

County Commissioner Ken Welch has been involved with creating the Lealman and the Southside CRAs, both of which are in his commission district. He said the 2013 poverty impact report got everyone’s attention.

In addition to spotlighting the extent of poverty in Pinellas and how it was growing, the report showed it was costing the county about $2 billion a year through hospital emergency room visits for the poor, court and crime issues, and lack of jobs and education, among other things.

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While CRAs in Pinellas previously had been used only for downtowns and business districts, Welch said the commissioners decided “we can’t allow poverty to spread when the rest of the county is doing well.”

The commission, which has to approve CRAs and diverting tax money through the TIFs, began to consider neighborhood areas as well, Welch said.

“We are looking at priorities and addressing poverty in a real way, not just addressing the results of it – the arrests and emergency rooms,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”

Ed Johnson, manager of the East Tampa CRA, said that program ran into good fortune its very first year in 2004. With property values, and property taxes, increasing in a hot housing market, the CRA ended up with $1.1 million – far above expectations.

“To give it some perspective, in the Ybor City CRA created in 1988, it took them 10 years to get to $1 million,” Johnson said.

East Tampa’s annual tax allotment doubled each year, hitting almost $7 million before the real estate collapse and the great recession. For the next three or four years, the CRA got nothing as values and tax revenue declined. “That’s the negative side of creating these TIFs,” Johnson said.

Still, through the years, the East Tampa CRA money has been used to clean up dumping areas, pay for seniors to make home improvements, help businesses improve building facades, repave streets, fund job training programs, improve parks and recreation facilities, install sidewalks near elementary schools, and for other projects neighborhood residents brought to the table.

“The key for most of these CRAs is to make sure you have the community buy-in,” Johnson said. “We always took the approach it has to be community driven, not government driven.”

Neri, who has been working with the county for 15 years to make improvements in Lealman, is optimistic about the possibilities of alleviating the poverty and the crime.

Since November, the Adopt-a-Block program has been coming out to Lealman each weekend, clearing debris and going door-to-door to check on residents and to see what they need – food, medicine, house repairs, appliances or whatever else – and taking care of it.

The CRA will add even more muscle.

“It’s a new day in Lealman,” Neri said. “We’re going to be able to do what we need to do.”