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Toast to the Bay/Dump into the Bay: Gulfport incumbents and Uhuru

Toast to the Bay: Gulfport incumbents 

Candidates for the Gulfport municipal election March 15 got one chance to debate in front of voters ahead of the election next month. As such, performance was key.

Two incumbents are facing challengers, Mayor Sam Henderson and Council member Dan Liedtke. Barbara Banno and April Thanos are running to unseat them. As challengers, the two have a heavier burden in wooing voters. Both failed to do that last night.

As we wrote following the debate, neither Thanos nor Banno seized an opportunity to overshadow their opponents. Thanos said things like “I don’t know enough about that” and made references to not having been in office – all things challenging candidates should avoid. Statements like those give voters the perception that a candidate lacks confidence and ability to get the job done.

And Thanos should have had an easy time stomping on Liedtke. She failed to seize an opportunity to bring up his opposition to the 2014 Greenlight Pinellas campaign that would have substantially increased public transit in the county. Liedtke made an early remark about PSTA, the transit agency, and the topic would have been relevant during a discussion about bike paths.

Even though Gulfport races are nonpartisan, Liedtke is a conservative in a liberal town. His rejection of PSTA could have cast him as an outlier.

As for Banno, she performed well, but not good enough. Banno is a strong candidate with good business sense and a strong presence in the community as the owner of a popular downtown Gulfport restaurant, Stella’s.

But while Banno didn’t lose her debate in the conventional sense, she lost it as a challenger by failing to outperform. Banno found herself on the receiving end of accusatory statements by Henderson.

Perhaps her biggest stumbles were the statements she made in which Henderson was able to contradict her. Banno called for city town hall meetings and implementing workshops. Both, Henderson countered, are already being done. When asked about fixing up dilapidated alleyways, Banno called for an annual maintenance schedule. Again, Henderson countered that arguing the city already had one.

Both instances served as a reminder to voters that one candidate has four years experience as mayor while the other doesn’t.

Dump into the Bay: Uhuru

Activists from the Uhuru group based in South St. Pete’s Midtown neighborhood stormed a city council meeting Thursday in protest of the city’s handling of a mural that was torn down at City Hall 50 years ago this year.

The group is led by Omali Yeshitela, the man who, on Dec. 29, 1966, tore down a racist mural hanging on the walls of City Hall. Yeshitela went by the name Joe Waller at the time. The painting depicted black performers entertaining white onlookers on Pass-a-grille beach. They were painted in black face, a form of depiction that showed African-Americans with darkened skin with lighter mouths and eyes.

The group accomplished absolutely nothing by interrupting the council meetings. Their chants were hard to understand and what they were asking for was entirely unclear.

To make matters worse, someone in the group left a bag in City Hall Chambers during the two to three minutes they interrupted council. It was dubbed “suspicious” and City Hall was evacuated.

So, instead of sending a message about some issue and drawing attention to it, the group wound up looking like troublemakers. And what’s particularly silly — the city recently sent out a call to local artists to replace the long-gone mural with something culturally significant to the history of the space.

It was, by any stretch of the definition, the worst example of civil disobedience. Not because of what they did, but because it seemed random, without cause and void of any particular goal.

Tropic Ocean kicks off flight service from downtown St. Pete to Fort Lauderdale

A new flight service out of downtown St. Pete could be a useful tool in attracting new businesses.

The first flight from Albert Whitted Airport to Fort Lauderdale took off from downtown St. Pete on  Monday morning. 

St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman and members of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce were on board to try it out.

Photos show an amphibious Cessna parked at Albert Whitted Airport ready for takeoff. The interior, a small but spacious cabin seating nine, is decked out with comfortable chairs and over-the-shoulder seat belts.

The flights, available to the public, run twice a week on Mondays and Fridays in the morning and evening and cost about $300 for round-trip tickets. Tropic Ocean, the small airline company operating the flights, is running a sale on the jaunts through May for $199.

Still, the price is steep compared to other ways of getting to Fort Lauderdale by air. Silver Airlines, for example, costs a little over $120 before taxes and fees to make the same trip from Tampa.

The new St. Pete service, however, isn’t necessarily catering to travelers looking to save a buck.

“It’s not intended to be a low-cost carrier,” St. Pete Chamber board Chairman Greg Holden  said.

Imagine what it takes now to hop a flight from Tampa International Airport. Travelers typically arrive at least an hour early to allow time to get through security and to their gate. There’s time to park, time waiting on the plane and time getting off the plane. All the while, the flight to Fort Lauderdale itself is less than an hour.

By the time travelers factor in how long it takes to fly a large aircraft a short distance, the benefit of flying versus driving has been mitigated. Meanwhile, flying out of Albert Whitted allows travelers to step out of their cars and virtually right onto the plane — no security, no getting there early.

Plus the company helps its customers with ground transportation to and from their destination to make trips even easier.

While it might not appeal to a family of four going to Fort Lauderdale for the weekend on a limited budget, it could be quite enticing for a CEO looking to move his business.

“What if you could walk from your office, get on a plane, and have these guys arrange your transportation on the other end and drop you off right at your conference?” Holden said.

There’s even more of an incentive buried in the new service for prospective companies. Within 12-months, the company expects to have an airplane based at Albert Whitted.

Not only does that mean hiring staff to maintain and operate the aircraft as well as facilitate sales and customer service, it also means service to other parts of the state could expand.

That opens the door for future legs to Tallahassee or Jacksonville. It also means there could be more charter opportunities for companies to fly teams of people to conferences without hassles of traditional travel.

“I think they see some of their business development and sales here,” Holden said of the potential for Tropic Ocean to expand in St. Petersburg.

He also noted that two of the company’s pilots live in St. Pete.

ICYMI: Rick Kriseman delivers new St. Pete Pier update

This year isn’t expected to be a very exciting one for St. Pete’s new Pier. That’s according to Mayor Rick Kriseman, who, in a video released Friday, thanked residents and visitors for their patience while plans continue to unfold.

He described a process for 2016 full of red tape and behind the scenes bore that will likely leave residents wondering what in the world is going on.

The inverted pyramid is razed and from an onlooker’s perspective, not much is happening. But Kriseman reminds this year is an important one.

“Today the design team is actively working on concepts that are being refined and developed,” Kriseman said. “We are waiting on bond financing and city council’s approval of the next level of funding, which will take place sometime over the next few months.”

Kriseman and mayors who came before him fought criticism surrounding the Pier. Most of that, including the effort that led to the demise of the Lens in 2013, stemmed from a love of the inverted pyramid. Now that that’s gone, critics have quieted who once boomed with objection.

Despite the lack of noise, Kriseman’s seeming favoritism of demolishing the inverted pyramid has earned him a small bunch of critics determined to see him unseated.

Whether or not they’re behind Kriseman’s constant reassurance isn’t clear, but he’s wise to stay ahead of the fray.

“We remain committed to stay within budget. And we will honor the programming requested by our residents,” Kriseman said. “From the beginning we said form would follow function and function would become the core value for the new pier. These values continue to guide our way.”

The city is expected to soon complete the schematic design for the new Pier; select a Pier operator, which is close to completion; choose a restaurant for the above-water space; and present the final schematic design to City Council for approval.

Sometime this spring, the city is expected to complete the Pier’s design development phase.

“Bringing on an architect to design the pier approach will provide another forum for community engagement as all aspects become integrated for a seamless experience connecting downtown to the pier district,” Kriseman said of the ancillary Pier approach project that begins its design phase this year.

The city expects construction documents for the new Pier to be completed this fall.

“So, while you don’t see a lot of activity at the pier, we have a plateful of activity going on about the pier with more on the way,” Kriseman said. “The process is long and complex.”

Toast of the Bay/Dump into the Bay: St. Pete Chamber and Bike Share

Toast to the Bay: St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce

The St. Pete Chamber this week celebrated a fruitful 2015 at the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Pete among more than 1,000 members. The backdrop was a theater thriving in a booming downtown. All things that make the Chamber and its president, Chris Steinocher, very, very happy.

The group welcomed 333 new members in 2015, a record-breaking year for them. Steinocher participated in 42 ribbon cuttings representing 42 new businesses to the city. And he’s pretty sure that’s not even the full number.

2015 was a year of successes for Chamber-backed priorities. A deal was reached with the Tampa Bay Rays (though technically that was early 2016), a decision was made on the Pier and the process is moving forward minus the many ails of 2012 and 2013, the downtown waterfront master plan became a reality and bus rapid transit for Central Avenue was funded through the Florida Department of Transportation.

The Chamber even opened its own store to promote tourism and locally produced goods called the St. Pete store.

Amid all of its successes, and those are just to name a few, the Chamber also has plenty to look forward to in 2016.

During its annual meeting Thursday night, the gavel was passed to longtime St. Pete leader Greg Holden, who has grand plans for the coming year as chair of the board. And he’s creating a new initiative — “Thinking outside the ‘Burg.” He’ll travel with other city leaders this year to Raleigh, North Carolina to learn best practices to add to the group’s already stacked repertoire.

The Chamber is also partnering with Mayor Rick Kriseman to ensure baseball stays in St. Pete. It’s part of Kriseman and Steinocher’s goal to entice the Tampa Bay Rays to choose St. Pete for the site of a new stadium even as the team now has the authority to look outside the city in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties.

Raise a glass Chamber folks — to 2015 and a new year full of possibility.

Dump into the Bay: Bike Share

It was a somber week for bike-share enthusiasts. Supporters of a $1.5 million plan to bring 30 bike share stations, with 300 bikes to parts of St. Pete in and around downtown, began the week optimistic that St. Pete City Council would voice adequate support for funding the priority.

Supported by Mayor Rick Kriseman, who initially proposed using $1 million out of the $6.5 million awarded to the city through the BP oil spill settlement to launch the program.

Preliminary discussions about it among council showed lackluster support for spending such a large chunk of BP funds on the program. As concerns came to a boil over the city’s aging wastewater infrastructure after inadequacies forced the city to dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into Tampa Bay, the Eckerd College campus and Clam Bayou, some council members wondered if bike share was the best use of those funds.

City staff, taking that under advisement, identified a way to reduce the ask to just $500,000. The total $1.5 million project would be funded at $500,000 each between BP money and parking and impact fees. The lower dollar figure left supporters and likely the Kriseman administration confident in gaining the support needed to appropriate the funding.

But during a workshop Thursday, City Council still appeared unsure. While a final decision was not made, City Council members Karl Nurse, Jim Kennedy and Steve Kornell still weren’t sold. Newly-elected council member Ed Montanari also hinted he may have some concerns. Only Darden Rice showed firm support for the plan with Amy Foster seeming supportive, but still guarded. Lisa Wheeler-Brown was ambivalent asking just that if bike share happens, stations be placed south of Central.

The issue was moved to a Public Services and Infrastructure Committee meeting for further discussion next month.

Still, the lack of support even after cutting the BP ask in half has to be unnerving for supporters and Cycle Hop, the company chosen to manage the program if it’s funded.

Supporters will have an uphill battle on their hands convincing what seems to be a still-reluctant council on funding the program when there are still so many other issues in the city awaiting funding.

At some point, bike share, we may raise our glass in a Toast to the Bay, but unfortunately for you this week, you get the dump. Sorry guys.

Bradenton engineer to run St. Pete’s public works

Claude Tankersley will replace former St. Petersburg Public Works Administrator Mike Connors. Tankersley comes to the city from Bradenton where he worked in a similar capacity as Public Works director.

He’ll begin mid-February and take over for Tom Gibson who has been interim head of public works since Connor’s departure in late August.

“I am incredibly pleased to have Claude join our team in the Sunshine City and provide our Public Works Administration with new leadership and direction,” Mayor Rick Kriseman said. “Claude is an experienced, accomplished professional with an appreciation for community engagement. His relationships across our region and state will be an asset to our citizens and the City of St. Petersburg.”

Tankersley began working with Bradenton in 2008. The year prior he earned the city’s Leadership Award. Tankersley has been a Florida Certified Professional Engineer since 1995 and is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He was named the Young Engineer of the Year in 1996.

Tankersley earned his Master’s of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Florida in 1991.

“I am very excited to join Mayor Rick Kriseman’s City of St. Petersburg team. As a lifelong Florida resident, I am passionate about building partnerships supportive of our people, our visitors and our environment,” Tankersley said. “I look forward to working with our neighborhoods, businesses and cultural communities to keep the ‘Public’ in Public Works.”

Tankersley will earn $149,000 a year in his new capacity. According to a database of 2014-2015 fiscal year salaries, Tankersley earned just under $120,000 annually working for  Bradenton.

Tankersley arrives to the position after inauspicious circumstances dogged his predecessor. Connors resigned abruptly in late summer after raw sewage was dumped into environmentally sensitive Clam Bayou, Tampa Bay, and the Eckerd College campus.

Prior to that, Connors already was being scrutinized for his work despite nearly three decades of service. The scrutiny followed a contentious selection process for a new Pier design where the most popular design chosen by survey was dismissed by the committee Connors led.

Connors’ salary was just over $140,000 annually.

St. Pete Chamber of Commerce celebrates 2015 as year of successes, looks to 2016

The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce celebrated a productive 2015 during its annual meeting Thursday night at Mahaffey Theater. Batons were passed. Backs were patted. New ideas were shared.

The meeting hosted more than 1,000 Chamber members in an ornate format. The stage was set with LED illuminated podiums and laser light blocks on each side with a giant screen zoomed in on 2015 Chamber Chairman Bill Ulbricht as he handed the gavel over to his successor, Greg Holden.

“In 2016, together, we’re going to get a lot done,” Holden said from behind his token bow tie. “I’m asking you to join me in thinking big.”

Holden announced a new initiative for 2016. He’s beginning what he hopes will become an annual event called “Thinking Outside the ‘Burg.” This year, Holden along with business leaders and elected officials, including Mayor Rick Kriseman, will travel on a “benchmarking” trip to Raleigh, North Carolina.

“It’s an opportunity to … allow us to see first hand a successful chamber model,” Holden said.

That’s not to imply St. Pete’s Chamber has,’t been successful. In 2015, the Chamber welcomed 333 new members and CEO Chris Steinocher attended so many ribbon cuttings he lost count. He got into the 40s, but realized that number seemed entirely too low.

Steinocher had so many “bright spots” to recount, he turned to technology to narrow the field. Members were given lists of areas of accomplishment in 2015 — like Chief’s Creole Café surviving its first year in midtown, the downtown waterfront master plan, Skyway Marina District improvements, and movement on the long-stagnant Pier issue. They were then asked to text what they’d like to hear more about.

All Children’s Hospital won as a result of its plans to expand with a seven-story education and research tower.

Then Steinocher asked the same question of the Chamber’s many task forces and committees. The St. Pete Young Professionals and Leadership St. Pete groups took away that honor beating out signature events committees, the diversity and inclusiveness task force, education task force, transportation task force, legislative task force, waterfront master plan and Pier task forces, economic development groups, the BB & T Entrepreneurial Academy, and visitors promotions groups.

Leadership St. Pete is a six-month class of professionals aimed at building leadership skills for various forms of future public service. The class takes on a community service project each year. This year, the class will work with the Alpha House crisis pregnancy center that houses mothers with nowhere else to turn.

Kriseman lauded the Chamber’s accomplishments throughout 2015 and looked forward to continued partnerships this year. He’s particularly excited about the newly announced venture between his office and the Chamber to prove baseball’s viability in St. Pete.

Kriseman will work with Steinocher and his group on a task force created to sell St. Pete as the best place for the Tampa Bay Rays, now that they have permission to explore alternative stadium locations outside of St. Pete in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

“We can’t do it alone. It’s going to take the entire community, particularly the business community,” Kriseman said.

He implored businesses and business leaders to answer the call to buy tickets to games, season tickets, or even company boxes.

The Rays’ struggle with attendance has long been attributed to low participation among local corporations and lacking access to businesses. Tampa was originally sold as a site that would provide more access to professionals who could catch a game after work.

Kriseman also thanked the Chamber for its work in helping to expand the success of downtown St. Pete into outlying areas like the Edge District, Grand Central and the Deuces.

St. Petersburg to send 2 students to Takamatsu, Japan

Know a high school junior living in St. Petersburg who has a penchant for travel? St. Pete is opening its annual application process to send up to two 11th-grade students to its sister city, Takamatsu, Japan.

Students interested in applying must complete the city’s official application form, an original essay, a letter to the program’s host family in Japan, class photos, and a copy of their high school transcripts including proof of participation in honors programs and/or their activities. They also must submit a class photo.

Parents of applicants also have to do a little legwork. Parents must include their own letter to the host family as well as two reference letters, including one from a school faculty member.

Applications are due to the city by March 11. Applications may be hand-delivered to the Office of Cultural Affairs in City Hall or mailed with a postmark no later than 5 p.m. on the day of the deadline. Applications cannot be submitted digitally.

The student or students selected will spend two weeks with a host family in Takamatsu, located on the southern Japanese island of Shikoku.

Visitors will have the opportunity to meet local government officials as well as Takamatsu’s mayor. They will attend a local high school and participate in daily activities with their host family. That includes visiting local cultural hot spots, historical sites, and even learning to cook local fare.

The students are expected to share their experience with the St. Pete City Council when they return as well as schools or other groups interested in the program.

The program includes round-trip airfare, insurance and home stays. Students traveling there should expect to have enough money to cover personal living expenses while in Japan including transportation, visits to attractions and meals.

Since the program began, 52 St. Pete students have visited Takamatsu.

The program also accepts students from Takamatsu into St. Pete. The city is looking for host families to participate in that program.

Trips to Takamatsu and for those traveling to St. Pete are scheduled in late July or early August. Families interested in becoming a host family can find more information on the city’s website. An application and background check is required.

St. Pete and Takamatsu have been sister cities since 1961.

Here’s what to expect in St. Pete City Council’s bike share discussion

The St. Petersburg City Council will likely set a date Thursday to decide whether to fund the first phase of a bike-share program in the city. At a council workshop, city staff is set to deliver a more than 60-page slideshow laying out how the program will work, how much it will cost, where bikes would be available, and benefits likely to be achieved.

But don’t wait for the meeting to get those details. According to Evan Mory, the city’s director of parking and transportation, the city is asking for just $500,000 from the overall $6.5 million awarded through the BP oil spill settlement. That’s half of what Mayor Rick Kriseman had originally requested.

Another $1 million to fully fund the program would be derived $500,000 each from the city’s transportation impact fees and parking fees. City Council would have to appropriate those expenditures, too.

This issue began a contentious one, with some City Council members worrying $1 million for bike share was too much to spend out of the BP money at a time when the city was grappling to pay for sweeping improvements to its wastewater infrastructure.

Now that the ask has been halved, though, City Council members may be keener to approve the expenditure.

And Mory plans to make a strong argument for bike share, namely that it’s a way to increase transportation options in and around downtown where mobility in cars is becoming increasingly more difficult, through increased traffic and more scarce parking.

The city is making strides in trying to encourage visitors to downtown to ditch their cars as much as possible; bike share is one more way to make that happen. And the purpose of BP money was to support sustainability issues. Cycling fits that bill by reducing the city’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Kriseman said during his recent State of the City address, what better way to spend BP money than to create a program that reduces the city’s need for BP?

And there is plenty of community support for the initiative. Cesar Morales is heading up a local group called BP for Bike Share.

“It’s not just health, it’s not just sustainability, it’s economic as well,” Morales said.

He explained several ways adding bikes to the downtown transportation mix could boost the economy. For starters, many out-of-town visitors who stay downtown isolate themselves to the Beach Drive area. With bikes, they suddenly have the ability to expand their St. Pete adventure to places like Tropicana Field and the Edge District, Grand Central and the Warehouse Arts District.

“This isn’t just recreational,” he said.

And there’s another argument for bike share City Council members may find appealing – boosting economic viability in South St. Pete.

Both City Council and Mayor Kriseman have made improving impoverished conditions, particularly in Midtown, a top priority. The word “Deuces” gets thrown around a lot when talking about economic growth. That describes areas along 22nd Street South.

It abuts the growing Warehouse Arts District, the booming 3 Daughters Brewery and it includes downtown Midtown. There’s a newly opened St. Petersburg College Campus and Chief’s Creole Café. And there’s The Deuces Barbeque.

Patrick Collins is the owner. He’s a white guy with a barbecue joint in a mostly black community. He didn’t’ exactly fit the Midtown stereotype. But Collins saw promise in the corridor and vibrancy in the neighborhood.

Collins is frustrated at the lack of connectivity to nearby districts like Edge and Grand Central. The downtown looper skips his block. And the Central Avenue Trolley does too.

“If we’re good enough for a bike stop, are we good enough for a trolley stop,” Collins said making the argument that bike share in Midtown may be a stepping stone to more robust transit in the area.

According to Mory, Midtown will get at least one bike share station in the preliminary stages of the program. The city partnered with an outside firm to evaluate where stations should be.

They determined the 30 stations and 300 bikes initially planned for the program will be spread among downtown, Grand Central, the Deuces and areas north and south of downtown like Coffee Pot Bayou and near USFSP and Bayfront and All Children’s hospitals.

The city went through a Request for Proposal process in which four companies bid on the job of managing the program. Of those, three were considered. Mory and his crew are recommending Cycle Hop, the same company that operates Tampa’s bike share program. The idea is to create a regionally supported program.

The city also chose to go with a program where the technology for the bikes – GPS, payment processing, etc. – is located on the bikes rather than having fuller-service kiosks.

This way, Mory said, the city is cutting costs, and it will be able to own the bikes. It also gives the city better access to data from the bikes to determine where they are most popular.

If the program is successful, which Mory anticipates it will be, the goal is to expand the program eventually to other parts of the city.

The current proposal includes a three-year contract with Cycle Hop to run the program. If the city is satisfied with the company near the end of that initial contract, they can renew for another three years.

St. Petersburg sets 2016 as year of homeownership

The city of St. Petersburg and Neighborhood Home Solutions is dubbing 2016 the year of homeownership in the city. To start what they hope will be a productive year in boosting homeownership, the NHS, city and Tampa Bay CDC are partnering to create sustainable homeowners.

To get started, the group is holding a homeownership event at 10 a.m. Saturday at Pinellas Technical College on 34th Street South.

Homeownership counselors will be there to give prospective home buyers an overview of programs available. NHS, the main group behind the event, is a nonprofit established in 1980 focused on revitalization and community development. The group helps individuals and families obtain greater financial health, qualify for home loans and teaches them how to maintain a home after purchase.

“If you’re paying $1,000 a month in rent, you can probably buy a similar house,” said City Council member Karl Nurse who has worked with groups on creating the event.

Among the many goals in increasing homeownership is to revitalize the many boarded-up houses in poor neighborhoods. The more those houses are purchased and fixed up, the more property values increase. And housing officials hope that boost will be enough to gradually rise neighborhoods out of poverty all the while eliminating blight.

But buying a home is difficult. As Nurse pointed out in a City Council meeting Thursday, banks are requiring more and more paperwork for prospective buyers in order to protect their interests after the 2008 housing market crash. Plus, many of the people who would like to buy a home need help improving their credit. Some even need help with basic finances such as establishing a bank account and learning how to budget.

The event aims to direct individuals to counselors and programs that can help begin that process. For some clients, the path toward homeownership can be quick. For others it can take more than a year and sometimes much more.

Registration for the event is open by calling 727-442-7075 or by emailing

Two luxury townhomes to open in downtown St. Pete this year

Construction on a new luxury housing development in downtown St. Pete is expected to begin this week. Center City Town Homes is an exclusive townhome building featuring just two units.

Each will be three-bedrooms with two and a half baths in 2,700 square feet of air-conditioned space. Each unit will have its own private courtyard with a private pool and a 600 square-foot private rooftop deck.

The roof top decks will be equipped with an outdoor kitchen. A floor plan shows a covered patio area large enough for dining and a pool table.

Both units will also have an over-sized two-car garage and feature high-end amenities like stainless steel gas appliances and marble countertops.

The new units will be located at 325 Second Street North just North of Sundial. Units will cost about $1.2 million each.

Floor plans on the developer’s website show three floors in the home. A private elevator encompasses part of the plan. A bedroom, bathroom and family room share the bottom floor with the courtyard and garage. The kitchen, dining room, master suite, living room and half bath are on the second floor.

The top floor includes the roof top deck as well as a third bedroom bathroom and family room.

The units are expected to be available this December.

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