For the past two week's I've interviewed city staff, councilmembers, residents and business owners about the PACE program. Vice-Mayor Michele King and others tout this as the program that will save 49th Street. She has bristled at the idea of delaying discussion of the project, lost her temper at council when other councilmembers wanted to workshop the program, and insinuated in a letter this paper printed that part of her rationale for choosing not to run again was tied to the idea that certain people in the city would oppose this program because of her ties to it.
I don't know about any of that, but I do know one thing: PACE doesn't seem like it's going to to a lick of good for the city. I've looked at the program, its fans, and its critics. I applaud the vice-mayor's passion and her fervor to change 49th Street, but I think the largest issues along the 49th Street corridor have less to do with energy efficiency and more to do with crime. I understand that improving the building appearances is simply part of the larger picture and PACE isn't a solution but just one tool. And, from what I can see, if the other tools are all just like it, Gulfport's leaders are in major denial.
PACE may help the Gulfport side. With loans. We've been told they'll be low interest, but I've yet to see that in writing. Am I the only one who realizes there's a little economic situation happening right now? High, low or no interest, the program still encourages people to borrow money. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the way Americans borrow money what caused an international economic crisis?
Also, I'm not seeing many 49th Street business owners coming to city council meetings or asking for this program. Two. I've heard from two. I've heard from more residents and business owners who feel that safety - perceived or real - is an issue for them. I don't see how PACE will make anyone feel safer. I don't see how PACE will make St. Petersburg put extra patrol details on their side of 49th Street. I don't see how PACE will stop yesterday's crack babies from dealing today's drugs across the street from the coin laundry. And I don't see how council can, in good conscience, shift the burden of safety and community standards onto a third party program that will encourage people to go further into debt.
49th Street will never change unless both cities- Gulfport and St. Petersburg- stop the crime. That's all you need to do, and the rest will work itself out, but it's the one thing council dances around, and, honestly, I think that's cowardly and apathetic. How can they do this? I have no idea, but I'll bet that the police have a few ideas. Has anyone even asked the officers who work the streets every day what they think would work?
Before anyone jumps in and tells me that the 49th Street area of Gulfport has less crime than other areas of the city, let me say three things. First, I would remind you that only one side of 49th Street enjoys the protection of Gulfport police officers- the other side depends on the city of St. Petersburg for protection. Say what you will about our police force, but I've lived in both cities and Gulfport is the superior agency. Second, I would quote the former chief of police, Curt Willocks, who used to tell me, "Crime rate doesn't matter if you're the victim." I know from experience it is cold comfort to hear that crime is more rampant elsewhere. Third, the Gabber has offices on 49th Street, and we see outside our window, so I don't know where anyone gets the idea that it's mostly an image problem, but I don't buy Amway and I'm not buying that, either.
The problem is a fundamental disconnect between what the council believes and what the rest of the city sees. Council members who don't live in Ward Four likely never see it at night or more than when they're passing through. I wonder how council would prioritize the issues surrounding the 49th Street corridor if city hall was on 49th Street. I'm just guessing here, but I'd wager that we'd see a program that involved more than telling already-successful business owners to take out loans to make their businesses look better to the rest of Gulfport.
Maybe then they would see what I see when I go to the Gabber office or Sav-On seafood. Maybe they would even see some of what I glimpsed when I rode along with the Gulfport Police Department. Although Officer Pete Horning patrolled every area of the city when I rode with him, he stopped cars mainly in Ward Four only. I think that's pretty telling.
Perhaps every member of council would be well-suited to do such a ridealong. Maybe that's the sort of thing that should be a requirement of the job. Former governor Bob Graham used to have work days, where he would spend a day working alongside various Floridians. It probably wouldn't hurt and might even help city council if they took the time to see the city from the bottom up instead of the top down.
And, if they did, maybe they wouldn't be so quick to tell people to borrow money when they're not willing to commit the city's resources to the area themselves.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.