How the St. Petersburg pregnancy center controversy derailed small business grants

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ST. PETERSBURG — City council votes to approve small business grants are rarely controversial. But a plan to help businesses in southern St Petersburg renovate has sparked heated and heated debate in recent months.

That’s mainly because a pregnancy center, which pro-choice advocates have accused of using unethical anti-abortion tactics, was to receive a grant. The head of the center, as well as locals who support him, have said these claims are baseless.

St. Petersburg Pregnancy Center, also known as Next STEPP, received the highest “score” for its application, meaning it was prioritized as a company that met the criteria to receive funding. But at an April city council meeting, several MPs said they were embarrassed by the idea of ​​giving money to the centre.

“I don’t know if anyone in this building was framed by an anti-abortion pregnancy center, but I was when I was 18,” said board member Darden Rice. “It’s scary and it’s cruel and they gas you up. The young women in our community don’t deserve this.

During the meeting, pro-choice activists and some townspeople urged the council to deny funding for the center – pointing to a previously passed city resolution that condemned anti-abortion pregnancy centers for using “ misleading and manipulative practices and false information”.

“We cannot support the manipulative, deceptive, fearmongering and judgmental practices of anti-abortion practices like Next STEPP, Elizabeth Baker of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida said at the meeting.

This resulted in a unanimous vote (with one member absent) to stop the grant program, giving the board time to reassess the eligibility criteria. That meant the status of the 21 candidates, who originally submitted their applications in early 2020 and who had already experienced pandemic-related delays, was in limbo.

The South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area Business Matching Grant Program allows small businesses to be reimbursed for half the cost of their renovations, up to $20,000 in most cases. It is paid for by property taxes collected in the same geographic area where businesses are eligible to receive the grants: approximately from 4th Street S to 49th Street from east to west, and from 2nd Avenue S to 30th Avenue du north to south.

As part of the delay, the 2021 cycle has been canceled and these applicants will need to reapply. Had the applications not been rescinded, council members could have approved them around August, according to Rick Smith, coordinator of the city’s Community Redevelopment Area. Now he is aiming for December, although he added that companies that have paid quotes from contractors to complete their applications will not have to re-do them and incur additional costs.

One such candidate was Gloria Campbell, owner of a small insurance company who previously received a grant under the same program. It was presented by the city in a video 2016 promoting, saying that the renovation of his office space has inspired other nearby store owners to make improvements, breathing new life into the street.

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Now Campbell, who was looking for money to help install outdoor lighting, said she was frustrated.

“My real issue is how it was done, why the board decided to (delay) it…and how they created problems for small businesses who may have been relying on that money to make renovations,” she said. .

But about a month after the program was shut down, the council was met with a backlash.

At its May 13 meeting, Maria Scruggs, former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP and candidate for the Pinellas County Commission, told council members that she was “completely caught off guard” by the way the center was characterized, and said it had previously held NAACP meetings. the. She said the center provides valuable services that help reduce racial inequities in health care, which city leaders have said they want to address.

“I promise I would have known there were problems at this center,” she said. “If we are talking about equity issues, one of the main issues we need to address are health issues. These people are on the ground to get the job done.

Long-time Next STEPP CEO Carole Alexander said the comments amounted to “an orchestrated attack”.

The center operates under the guidance of a licensed doctor, she said, and offers free pregnancy tests, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, limited obstetric ultrasounds, referrals for preventative health screenings and other services needed by residents. Other speakers also said the center provides free diapers, clothing and parenting education.

“Nearly 70% of our attendees come from referrals, word of mouth from families, friends and other organizations. That says a lot, she said in a later interview. “If we’re these terrible people, all these people wouldn’t recommend us.”

Related: ‘Pregnancy centers’ are under scrutiny as lawmakers seek to elevate their status

In general, pregnancy centers, many of which are faith-based, are less regulated than more traditional medical care providers and can vary widely by location.

Some do not advertise that they hold anti-abortion views, hoping to attract pregnant women seeking abortions and then point out the risks of the procedure for them. Some falsely claim that abstinence is the only effective form of contraception, or tell people that contraceptives cause cancer or infertility.

But Alexander said his center never misleads women and “calling us an anti-abortion center really takes away most of the work we do.”

“We serve in the community, where the needs are great and it’s not just about pregnancy,” she said. “They aim to help families who face challenges caused by … inequalities in housing, in the economy, in health care.”

Related: Florida mothers of color, seeking better care, turn to midwives and doulas

Comments at the meeting prompted a dramatic about-face for the board, in which all but two members voted to put grant applications, including those for the pregnancy center, back on the agenda for a vote of approval.

This final vote took place on Thursday and was unanimous.

During this meeting, board member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman apologized to the center.

“I know you’ve been here for over 20 years. I know how many people the pregnancy center has helped,” she said. “I am pro-choice. A woman has the right to do what she wants with her body. But taking so much time on this issue didn’t make sense to me.

Writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.

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