ST. PETERSBURG — Robert Blackmon cracked a joke Thursday about how he still has his Pathfinder Outdoor Education shirt from the fifth grade. He reminisced about his childhood visits to the Science Center.
Those memories came together in Blackmon’s final pitch to his fellow City Council members, to secure the funding he needed to make his pet project a reality.
It worked. City Council’s Committee of the Whole voted 5-3 to recommend approving up to $2.1 million for the Science Center from the city’s Weeki Wachee Fund, a reserve meant to enhance recreation and environmental activities. Now, the city must transfer the 4-acre portion of the property from the city’s Water Resources Department back to the city.
The Science Center would be restored as it once was, a hub for science, technology, engineering and mathematics for students and teens, plus an event space. Opening in 1959, it closed in 2014. CareerSource then bought the property, and the city later purchased it for wastewater storage tanks. The property is adjacent to the Northwest Water Reclamation Facility.
The city maintains the property is dilapidated and could be razed and used for affordable housing. Blackmon said the building has “good bones” as a concrete building with a relatively new roof. One of the two air conditioning units is working.
Pathfinder Outdoor Education is interested in being a tenant. Joe Hamilton, co-founder of the St. Petersburg Group, which is on board for being the project’s manager, said he toured the facility and “was actually feeling pretty good about it.”
“Everything is salvageable with money,” Hamilton said.
Some council members thanked Blackmon for his dedication to the project. Council Vice Chair Gina Driscoll said the city should focus on affordable housing projects elsewhere, though she had questions and concerns.
“It just makes the most sense,” she said. “Let’s work on fixing up what we’ve already got.”
Council member Brandi Gabbard shared the concern of having an organization already lined up. She and council member Darden Rice wanted a feasibility study, and the council raised the allocation to allow for that.
Rice questioned the proximity of affordable housing next to a wastewater facility.
Deborah Figgs-Sanders, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Amy Foster voted no.
Figgs-Sanders was adamantly opposed to the project. She tried motioning to defer the project, but it failed. She said the space could be used for affordable housing instead and said the Science Center isn’t close to any public transportation lines, therefore out of reach of underprivileged children. She also took issue with the process.
“I’ve seen smaller projects go through more scrutiny than this project,” she said.
Wheeler-Bowman agreed with Figgs-Sanders on all counts.
“We don’t get to decide as individual council members who’s going to do a project,” she said. “I would like to see what the next mayor is going to say.”
Blackmon is running against former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch to be the next mayor of St. Petersburg on Nov. 2.
Foster questioned why the Science Center couldn’t be relocated. She pointed out that Pinellas County Schools provided free transportation to the Science Center and it was still unsuccessful.