How controversy over pregnancy center in St. Petersburg derailed subsidies for small businesses

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

This is mainly because a pregnancy center, which pro-choice advocates accused of using unethical anti-abortion tactics, was to receive a grant. The head of the center, along with residents who support him, said the claims were baseless.

The 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 a city council meeting in April, several members said they were troubled by the idea of ​​giving money to the center.

“I don’t know if anyone in this building was trapped by an abortion center, but I was when I was 18,” said Darden Rice, a board member. “It’s scary and it’s cruel and they enlighten you. Young women in our community don’t deserve this.

During the meeting, choice advocates and some city residents urged council to deny funding for the center – referring to a resolution previously passed by the city that condemned anti-abortion pregnancy centers for using ” deceptive and manipulative practices and false information ”.

“We cannot support the manipulative, deceptive, alarmist and judgmental 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. This meant that the status of the 21 candidates, who initially submitted their applications in early 2020 and had already suffered delays related to the pandemic, was in limbo.

The Southern St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area Trade 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 by property taxes collected in the same geographic area where businesses are eligible to receive the grants: approximately 4th Street S to 49th Street east to west, and 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 apply again. If the requests had not been canceled, council members could have approved them around August, according to Rick Smith, the city’s community redevelopment area coordinator. Now he’s targeting December, although he added that companies that paid contractors’ quotes to complete their applications won’t have to redo them and incur additional costs.

One of those applicants was Gloria Campbell, who owns a small insurance company that has already received a grant under the same program. It was presented by the city in a 2016 video by promoting, saying that the remodeling of its offices prompted other nearby store owners to make improvements, giving new life to the streets.

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

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

But about a month after the program ended, the council faced backlash.

At her May 13 meeting, Maria Scruggs, former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP and candidate for the Pinellas County Commission, told board members that she was “completely caught off guard” by the way the center was characterized, and said she had previously held NAACP meetings. the. She said the center provides valuable services that help reduce racial inequalities 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 do the job.

Carole Alexander, longtime CEO of Next STEPP, said the comments amounted to “an orchestrated attack”.

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

“Almost 70 percent 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 are these terrible people, not all of these people would refer us.”

Related: ‘Pregnancy centers’ come under scrutiny as lawmakers seek to raise status

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

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

But Alexander said his center never misleads women and “characterizing us as an anti-abortion center really eliminates the majority 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 facing challenges caused by… inequalities in housing, economy, health care.

Related: Florida mothers of color in search of better care turn to midwives and doulas

The comments during the meeting sparked a dramatic about-face for the board, in which all but two of the members voted to put grant applications, including that of 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 whatever she wants with her body. But taking so long on this issue didn’t make sense to me.

Editor-in-chief Josh Solomon contributed to this report.

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