Clearwater approves $22M in COVID relief spending; chamber left out for now

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CLEARWATER — Should the city guarantee the chamber of commerce $250,000 in federal COVID relief funds to launch a business incubator when all other nonprofits will have to apply and compete for the money?

Most City Council members on Thursday backed the funding for the chamber group, Amplify Clearwater, but confusion over the motion resulted in a vote that did not include the earmark.

The council voted 4-1 to split the city’s $22.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding into 11 broad spending categories. Any expenditure over $100,000 will come back to council for approval, including $1 million for grants that nonprofits can apply for, according to finance director Jay Ravins. Mayor Frank Hibbard voted no.

Following a request by Hibbard, City Manager Jon Jennings had recommended that $250,000 of the $1 million for nonprofits be earmarked for an incubator being created by Amplify. The mayor said he spoke with representatives of St. Petersburg College and a group of business mentors who are retired executives supporting Amplify’s plan.

“I think that it’s incredibly important that we are helping people get businesses off the ground, help entrepreneurs generate new jobs — jobs that hopefully are going to allow people to afford more expensive housing,” Hibbard said.

Vice Mayor Kathleen Beckman vehemently pushed back on the carve out, questioning how the city could evaluate Amplify’s program since it doesn’t exist yet. She said she first heard about this “nebulous project” at the Monday work session. And, while she supports the idea of an incubator, she couldn’t back something without more detail about how it will work.

“I think it’s highly irregular, I don’t think it’s transparent and I certainly don’t think it’s fair to the other providers of service in our area if somebody else has got a head start on $250,000 because they had conversations with some of us, but not all of us, and not out in the public,” Beckman said.

Beckman made a motion to approve the 11 categories of Rescue Plan funds outlined on the agenda item and did not mention the Amplify earmark recommended by the city manager. It passed with the 4-1 vote.

But after the council had moved on to another agenda item, council member Mark Bunker asked for clarification on the vote. Council members David Allbritton, Lina Teixeira and Bunker confirmed they did not realize the motion they supported excluded the Amplify grant.

The council members said they thought by approving the agenda item, it automatically included Jennings’ recommendation for the Amplify incubator. But because Jennings’ recommendation was verbal, it did not.

After the confusion, Hibbard confirmed the incubator will have to come back to the council for approval.

The complete spending categories include:

  • $5 million for start-up funding for the North Greenwood Community Redevelopment Agency

  • $3.5 million for fiber upgrades and broadband connectivity

  • $3.3 million for affordable housing

  • $2.35 million to reimburse the city for business grants and employee premium pay given during the pandemic

  • $2 million for streets and sidewalks

  • $2 million for solar panels for city facilities

  • $1 million for the Pinellas Community Foundation (city staff will set criteria for the spending)

  • $1 million for nonprofit grants (groups will apply and the City Council will vote on awards)

  • $1 million in education grants or partnerships (groups will apply and the council will vote on awards)

  • $700,000 for improvements to State Street Park

  • $625,000 for improvements to the Main Library for an information hub