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Pinellas County moves forward with first-ever CRA
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[Image]
Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY
The area proposed for the county’s first-ever Community Redevelopment Area is in unincorporated Lealman, which is wedged in between Pinellas Park to the north, Kenneth City to the west and St. Petersburg to the south and east.
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Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY
Some of the narrow streets in the central area of Lealman are unsafe due to steep ditches, such as this one where Frank Bowman with the county’s Planning Department is standing. Bowman is assigned to work exclusively for the Lealman community.
[Image]
Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY
Narrow roads with no sidewalks and open drainage ditches are common throughout unincorporated Lealman.
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Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY
Many houses in the community have minor to critical structural issues, which is a problem for code enforcement.
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Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY
Abandoned houses are common. Oftentimes, prostitutes and drug dealers set up shop in these locations.
LEALMAN – Unincorporated Lealman is one of the most impoverished areas of Pinellas County. It is a hotspot for crime with more than its fair share of abandoned properties being used by prostitutes and drug dealers.

The streets are old, narrow and unsafe, and many are flanked by open drainage ditches. Sidewalks are few and most do not connect. Streets running east to west don’t connect either, due to a railroad track and Joe’s Creek that run through the middle of the community. Drainage is a major issue.

Pinellas County turned its eye toward Lealman in 2000, but lost its focus, as money grew tight during the Great Recession. Plans that would have improved conditions in an area encompassing about 2,500 acres were put on hold. Neighborhood projects promised as part of the current Penny for Pinellas program were cut from the capital improvement plan, as staff worked to prioritize a much smaller pile of available funds.

Now the county has refocused its eye on the community. And what it sees is not good. Staff reports that lack of support from county revenue and personnel have allowed conditions to deteriorate.

“About a year ago, the board asked me to start an initiative to focus more attention and more of our resources in Lealman, said County Administrator Mark Woodard said at a May 19 commission meeting.

“We’ve done a lot in that time,” he said.

One staff person, Frank Bowman now with the Planning Department, was dedicated entirely to Lealman. One code enforcement officer was assigned to focus exclusively on the area with support from two others. Now, plans are in the works for Pinellas’ first-ever Community Redevelopment Area.

The state enacted legislation in 1969 that allows for the creation of community redevelopment agencies and Community Redevelopment Areas for areas with slum or blight. The law also includes an option to establish a trust fund to receive money from tax increment revenues. Pinellas County established its first CRA in 1997. As of 2013, the county had established 22 CRAs; however, three have expired and two were never reacted. Only 11 of those CRAs receive TIF funds. In a report from April 2013, county staff said more than $83.8 million had been invested in the 11 CRAs receiving TIF funds.

Establishing the Lealman CRA

The first step toward creation of a CRA is completion of a Finding of Necessity Analysis using a “statutorily prescribed process,” Woodward said. Renea Vincent Division Manager with the county’s Planning Department said the study found multiple examples of blight within the 3.94-square-mile area, which was more than enough to meet the state’s requirements for a CRA.

One issue confirmed by the analysis is the “rather old and deteriorating housing stock, Bowman told commissioners at that May 19 meeting.

“It’s been a situation since we started working there in 2000,” he said.

Back in those days, the county “made great strides in helping improve the community,” he said, adding infrastructure, such as a neighborhood park and Joe’s Creek Greenway Park.

“We had a lot of things planned to do in the community, then the recession hit,” he said. “Resources and staff shrank and we stopped providing hands-on neighborhood planning functions.”

During the “good times,” more people were buying homes in Lealman. Many of these new homeowners were blue-collar workers and trade’s people, Bowman said. When the recession hit, jobs disappeared and the homeowners disappeared too. A lot of them left the area.

Almost all those properties reverted to being investor-owned and a high number became rental properties. There was a “great influx” of new people, most lower-income, ethnic and cultural minorities.

Bowman said 54 percent of residential properties in Lealman are rentals. And those rentals are the majority of the problem properties in the community. Most are not well maintained and some have been abandoned, which draws in homeless individuals and crime. Some become hangouts for prostitutes and drug dealers. Rental houses of only 700 square feet rent for $1,000 a month.

“People are desperate,” he said.

The area also has a number of derelict mobile home parks, which attract a “very lowered strata of our society” that can’t find housing due to criminal background or credit problems.

Multiple issues create a big problem

The recent study showed that the problems in Lealman went “beyond the scope of what we understood previously,” Bowman said.

“We knew that people had had hard times and we knew that there were difficult situations, but this was really amplifying things,” he said.

Median income in Lealman is $30,358 compared to the county as a whole with a $43,937 median income. About 23 percent of households in Lealman have incomes below $15,000. The average countywide is 13.9 percent. More than 56 percent of households earn less than $35,000 a year, compared to 39.7 percent countywide.

Lealman also is one of the county’s food deserts. There are no grocery stores. People are paying “way too much” on less than healthy foods being purchased at convenience stores, Bowman said. County staff is working toward making healthy produce more available through a mobile produce stand.

The crime rate in Lealman is twice that of the remainder of the territory covered by the Sheriff’s Office. Calls for emergency medical services are about four times that of the rest of the county, and fire calls are more than three times higher. Fire service is hampered due to a lack of fire hydrants.

Lance Bates, an 18-year property owner in Lealman, talked about some of the problems at a June 23 commission meeting. He is concerned that the county could make things worse by issuing code enforcement fines on property owned by people who already are having a difficult time.

He said the county had abandoned Lealman in 2010. He said due to budget cuts, the sheriff no longer patrolled as often. The county stopped cleaning the trash out of alleyways, among other things.

Lealman is wedged between the municipalities of St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Kenneth City. Bates said when St. Petersburg cracked down on its homeless, many of them came to Lealman. When Pinellas Park got aggressive with crime, those people moved to Lealman too.

“I’ve sat in my front yard all night with a boat light running off prostitutes and drug dealers,” he said.

Blight deters economic development

Economic Development Director Mike Meidel is concerned about the many challenges surrounding redevelopment of the Joe’s Creek Industrial Center. The buildings are old and technically obsolete, he said. The best the center can offer is a location near major roadways and cheap rent, which keeps down vacancy rates. However, none of the industries that occupy the center provides high-wage jobs.

Due to the condition of the industrial center itself, along with poorly maintained properties surrounding it, narrow streets, no sidewalks, lack of drainage in a 100-year flood plain area and a high crime rate, it is very difficult to market the property to high tech industries, Meidel said.

He said Joe’s Creek Industrial Center would be a good place for a variety of manufacturing ventures, but until the area could be cleaned up and spruced up, it would be hard to move forward.

“It is not a very attractive area,” he said.

He said improving the industrial center and attracting higher-wage employers would provide better jobs for the people living in the community.

Moving forward toward a solution

Bowman said staff is working with the Florida Dream Center, a nonprofit organization that supports an adopt-a-block program in Lealman. Each week volunteers go out into a six or seven block area to help residents. They work to improve the appearance and safety of problem properties, cleaning up trash, mowing and fixing what they can. They also go out and talk to people.

Bowman said the Florida Dream Center had helped staff become more aware of problems of different individuals. He said due to the recession, the county “lost touch with Lealman.” But some residents and stakeholders remain that are adamant about improving the community. County staff plans to work with those citizens and recruit more to get involved.

The proposed fiscal year 2016 county budget includes $100,000 to repair air conditioning and replace flooring in Clearview Elementary school, where the Florida Dream Center plans to open a community center to offer social services to the people in Lealman.

Staff also is working with the school district and Juvenile Welfare Board, which has labeled Lealman as the worst area in the county in terms of student dropout rates and teen pregnancy.

A CRA would help staff be able to better define a plan of action to “turn the area around,” Bowman said. In addition, it would provide more opportunities for funding with a dedicated TIF. Vincent said having extra money would allow staff to apply for matching grants from other agencies.

TIF money can only be spent on items contained in the CRA plan, which is currently in the works. Vincent recommends that the commission plan for a wide range of programs and projects on which the money could be spent.

Information from the analysis and other research and documentation about the Lealman area provides a good “jumping-off point” to begin making plans for a CRA, she said.

“We know what’s happening in the Lealman area,” Vincent told commissioners.

County Commissioners approved moving forward with a CRA June 23. They agreed to establish a TIF, which will be funded by property tax value increases in the community. Seed money of $50,000 for public outreach was included in the FY 2016 budget.

Commissioners passed an ordinance July 21, giving the commission the authority of a Community Redevelopment Agency. They also passed a resolution that defined the parameters of a new Lealman nine-member Community Area Advisory Committee.

The county is currently taking applications from interested citizens and businesses in the Lealman area. Applicants must be residents, business and/or property owners or other stakeholders from within the Lealman Community Redevelopment Area.

Applications can be found at http://tinyurl.com/oynj4rv and must be received no later than the close of business on Wednesday, Aug. 12. County Commissioners will review applications and make their selections at the Sept. 10 meeting.

The committee’s by-laws are available online at www.p­inell­ascou­nty.o­rg/pl­an. The committee will begin meeting monthly in October.

Help needed sooner than later

While the county is taking steps to make improvements, it could still be years before much progress can be made, due mostly to a lack of money. Even a dedicated TIF will take time to generate extra revenue.

Commissioner Janet Long recommended that staff look for ways to speed up the process. She expressed concern about “kids growing up in crime and poverty.” She said allowing conditions to “deteriorate to this level is so sad.”

“They can’t wait three or four years,” she said.

“Some stuff should have been done already,” Commission Chair John Morroni admitted, blaming the problem on the economic downturn.

Commissioner Dave Eggers talked about all the people that had recently asked the commission for funding for different causes as staff had worked to prepare next year’s budget. He said there weren’t “too many higher priorities than lifting a community up.”

“To me, we can talk all we want, but until we start really doing things in a community that really needs it, we’re just fooling ourselves,” he said.
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