FORT PIERCE — It’s been just over a year since Lincoln Park Main Street moved into the historic Means Court Elementary School on 13th Street. Now the 16-year-old nonprofit is at risk of losing that office space.
Fledgling nonprofit Incubspante Neighborhood Center has transformed the former Means Court Elementary School — once the only school in St. Lucie County for Black students and former site of Lincoln Park Academy — into a community hub that offers business-incubation, home-ownership, workforce-development and financial-lending programs.
The organization, also known as INC., leases most the city-owned building and Lincoln Park Main Street uses a small portion of the first floor.
But the Fort Pierce Redevelopment Agency, comprised of city commissioners, is expected to lease the entire building to INC., leaving Main Street without a home.
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What is now Lincoln Park Main Street’s office will be turned into a technology lab with 3D printing, cybersecurity training, a community bank and more.
The FPRA board is expected to vote on a final lease with INC. in December, according to city officials.
“This bank is going to specialize in microloans for small businesses,” said INC. CEO Canieria Gardner. “… The biggest need right now for small businesses in this community is funds, because the major banks don’t really want to give a startup a loan under $250,000.”
Echoing Gardner, City Commissioner Curtis Johnson Jr., who represents the neighborhood, acknowledged the need for microlending programs, but expressed concern about losing another valuable nonprofit.
“This goes against everything that I’ve been advocating for, for one Fort Pierce, for us to work together and get things done in this community,” Johnson Jr. said. “I want a win-win, and this is not a win-win.”
Lincoln Park Main Street proposed utilizing the space for a heritage education program that would showcase African American Art and the history of the neighborhood, but but the city rejected it.
“It’s not comfortable being in this situation,” Gardner, the INC. CEO, told TCPalm. “I feel a tremendous amount of remorse. I’m excited that we were selected, but I’m sad at the same time because of the situation.”
The heritage education program would have displayed historical items such as Lincoln Park Academy yearbooks and chorus albums; St. Lucie County desegregation court documents; a 1925 St. Lucie County Public Schools ledger for Lincoln Park Academy; and the medical bag and surgical tools of Dr. Clem Benton — who oversaw one of the only nursing homes in St. Lucie County open to the Black community throughout the 1950s, according to Pamela Carithers, executive director of Lincoln Park Main Street.
Former School Board members, such as Samuel Gaines, told commissioners at the Nov. 8 FPRA meeting that preserving and showcasing the history of Lincoln Park is crucial and should not be overlooked.
“I want you to understand that our children and our citizens need the opportunity to be able to learn their real history,” Kathryn Hensley, another former School Board member, told commissioners. “If Lincoln Park Main Street does not stay in that building, I will be speaking with (City Manager Nick) Mimms to see if we can find an appropriate place for that history to exist.”
To ease these woes, Gardner said, INC. is working on a project to highlight all African Americans who have held office in St. Lucie County through a community bulletin board.
Carithers said she was disappointed the city chose INC. over Lincoln Park Main Street, calling the process unfair.
“I didn’t even know this was coming up for review until I saw the meeting agenda,” she said. “What’s disheartening is that last year the city announced Main Street would be the anchor organization. Was that just to get buy-in from the community?”
Lincoln Park Main Street expected to be offered a renewal after its one-year lease expired, she added.
It’s not fair that INC. has a 30-year lease at $1 per month, Carithers said.
Gardner however, defended the process.
“In 2021, when the space was available, Lincoln Park Main Street could have bid on the space,” Gardner told commissioners. “They chose to not bid on the space … and that process was transparent.”
Johnson Jr. remains adamant that city officials help Lincoln Park Main Street find a new home and provide a timeline of when they must move out of Means Court.
He also suggested leasing Lincoln Park Main Street office space on the second floor of the building.
Commissioner Arnold Gaines — who also represents the Lincoln Park community, who recused himself from voting because he’s on the Lincoln Park Main Street Board — agreed with Johnson Jr. and stressed that helping Main Street should be a priority.
“If something could be worked out for Lincoln Park Main Street to get space in there, or close to there,” he said, “let’s try to do it.”