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Bob Buckhorn, Rick Kriseman to deliver lively State of the Bay on Friday

Neighboring Mayors Bob Buckhorn and Rick Kriseman will deliver a State of the Bay address at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club luncheon at the St. Pete Yacht Club in downtown on Friday.

The two are likely to tout their respective wins in both Tampa and St. Pete. For Kriseman that means a demolished Pier, a thriving downtown, several key steps in stamping out poverty in South St. Pete and, most likely by then, a new deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.

For Buckhorn, there’s the mostly completed Riverwalk set to breathe life into an otherwise dull downtown. There’s Jeff Vinik’s proposed “Vinikville” in Channelside. There are plans to increase bike lanes on Tampa roads considered some of the most dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists in the country. He’s passionate about improving transportation, including that dirty word: rail. Buckhorn may even mention new parks and finally fixing Cuscaden Pool.

While both Mayors will no doubt tout lifting their cities out of the Great Recession and rebuilding a shattered economy – Buckhorn initially had to tap into reserves to get through, while Kriseman came into office finally budgeting money back into reserves – Buckhorn’s talking points will likely be much larger than Kriseman’s.

While Kriseman’s focus during the first half of his first administration has been on all things St. Pete, Buckhorn’s sweeping re-election to a second term has resonated with rumblings of an incomplete four years in favor of manning the Governor’s mansion in Tallahassee.

During what some thought an overly grandiose inauguration, Buckhorn hinted at gubernatorial aspirations evoking bipartisan sentiments at the state, not the local, level.

It’s not even Buckhorn’s goals for higher office that may make Kriseman look like small potatoes. It’s his commanding presence that has in the past cast Kriseman as the annoying little brother.

Last year, Buckhorn even referred to St. Petersburg and other cities across the Bay as “junior partners,” “small boroughs” and “little hideaways” while referring to himself as the “900-pound gorilla.”

That trash talk came before a go-kart race promoting the St. Petersburg Grand Prix where Buckhorn raced Kriseman and other Bay Area mayors. Buckhorn lost.

Though on paper Kriseman and his beloved St. Pete appear to have more to gloat about in recent months and years – the city transformed itself from “God’s Waiting Room” into a craft beer mecca for millennials in just a matter of years – Buckhorn’s presence and drive for more power will likely dominate the event.

One of the key issues likely to dominate conversation after the two have finished their scripted commercials for the area and are launched into the Tiger’s Den to be carved up is the Tampa Bay Rays. Kriseman wants to keep them. Buckhorn wants to steal them.

By Friday, Kriseman will likely know whether or not he has majority support from a new City Council for a deal that would let the Tampa Bay Rays look outside the city for new stadium sites. He thinks that’s the best way to keep the Rays in St. Pete because they will quickly see it’s the best place for them.

For Buckhorn, it lets him finally talk with the team about its prospects in Tampa.

But there’s a lot the politically savvy members of Tiger Bay could drag out of Buckhorn during the Q&A. Buckhorn hasn’t expressed much, if any, eagerness to help the team pay for a stadium in Tampa. That’s a problem. And the most attractive place for a stadium, downtown’s Channelside, is off the table.

On Kriseman’s side of things, there’s also the question of where. The current site seems the most ideal. There’s plenty of space and it’s basically in downtown, a priority in modern-day stadium building. But how can he ensure attendance will increase with a new stadium in the same spot?

Expect Kriseman to answer that question, should it arise, with any number of ideas including better transportation. The city is looking forward to a new Bus Rapid Transit line connecting downtown to the beaches and Kriseman is moving forward with plans to establish a ferry service shuttling people between Tampa and downtown St. Pete.

St. Pete also has access to county bed tax revenue crucial toward funding a new stadium.

Whatever comes up, any clash of Tampa’s Buckhorn and St. Pete’s Kriseman is likely to be a lively event.

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Saturday kicks off new era for St. Petersburg City Council

Two St. Petersburg City Council members are getting ready to leave City Hall after eight years of service. That means two more are getting ready to take their places.

Bill Dudley and Wengay Newton both served the maximum two terms allowed under the city charter with passion and conviction, and they will be missed. But it’s time to pass the torch to their successors.

At 10 a.m. Saturday at City Hall, Lisa Wheeler-Brown and Ed Montanari will be sworn in to replace the two veteran city leaders.

Wheeler-Brown is inviting supporters to participate in the celebration. A Facebook event page created this week shows that 85 people were invited with more than 30 indicating they plan to attend.

The event marks the culmination of a rocky campaign for Wheeler-Brown. The longtime community activist spent years working in her poverty-stricken Midtown neighborhood in order to boost residents’ cooperation with police. After her son Cabretti‘s 2008 slaying,  Wheeler-Brown struck out into the streets of her community to break down the so-called “no-snitch” code of silence.

She did and, thanks to her efforts, her son’s killer was brought to justice.

But the tragic past and ultimate triumph over it became blurred during what was the nastiest campaign in recent St. Pete history. Wheeler-Brown was first caught up in the middle of a campaign finance controversy after using campaign funds to pay for personal dental work.

More mistakes were later found documenting sloppy bookkeeping and unreported contributions. From there it only got worse. Wheeler-Brown’s past was called into question including minor misdemeanor charges for retail theft and writing a bad check.

A foundation created in her son’s murder was even questioned after discovering there was no paper trail documenting how much money was raised or how it was spent.

At one point there was even a negative third party mailer distributed showing an unflattering photo of Wheeler-Brown with skin visibly darkened.

Supporters were outraged. Ultimately Wheeler-Brown soundly defeated her opponent, Will Newton. On election night she was all smiles, poised to put the nastiness behind her.

On Saturday, that will happen.

Wheeler-Brown will be joined by Montanari for the swearing in ceremony. Though Montanari was elected without opposition, his journey to City Hall was more than eight years in the making.

Montanari narrowly lost to Dudley two terms prior. By the time his turn came around again Montanari had gathered support from the incumbent and an impressive bipartisan group of community leaders.

This Saturday supporters get to watch as one candidate assumes a position she fought back tears to win and another takes on a role he’s been seeking for nearly a decade.

The two new council members also bring with them the potential for major change on City Council. Wheeler-Brown is widely considered the fifth vote needed to advance a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays to allow the baseball team to begin searching for stadium sites outside of St. Pete.

That issue has been pending since 2009.

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What happened to St. Pete’s Baseball Santa?

The holiday display in downtown St. Petersburg is coming down as festivities for the New Year begin. But there’s one display that was already missing from years in the past: Baseball Santa.

Residents who flock to downtown to catch a glimpse of the spectacular light display featuring icicles dangling from trees and several large light-up figures may have noticed the Santa shown pitching a ball to an awaiting elf with a bat is no longer there.

According to the city, that’s because residents commented the display was too repetitive from year to year. Explained by Ben Kirby, the mayor’s spokesman, imagine living downtown and seeing the same display for several weeks each year.

For most, he continued, you make the trip to check it out and then leave. They look at it every day.

Mike Vineyard with the city’s Parks and Rec department agreed it was important to keep the display fresh each year.

“We saved money by not having a display on Spa Beach this year,” Vineyard said. “So we actually had a better display in Straub Park.”

He explained that, in years past, displays have been mostly only visible at night when they’re lit up. But this year many of the displays were wrapped in sparkling garland to make them festive all day long.

And Baseball Santa may come back.

The city uses a company called Clark’s Christmas. The city orders various displays from the company that then sets them up according to the city’s specifications. All the various displays are stored in a Central Florida warehouse. Other cities use the service, too.

The city budgets about $50,000 for its annual holiday display and here’s the kicker: Planning for the whole thing starts … now.

Vineyard said it’s almost a bit of a buzzkill on the holidays to have a job that requires planning so early.

So, once this year’s display is down, Vineyard will enjoy the New Year for a brief shining moment before strapping back into Christmas mode to plan next year’s display — with or without Baseball Santa.

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St. Pete officials serving supper to tout Southside improvements

St. Petersburg city officials are inviting residents to enjoy a “Sunday Best Supper” at the Carter G. Woodson African-American History Museum where the administration will share its progress in improving conditions in the Southside.

Neighborhoods south of Central Avenue are among some of the poorest in the city. Midtown and Childs Park are particularly plagued by poverty and crime.

While the struggles facing many Southside residents are nothing new, the ongoing problems in many of those neighborhoods have been particularly thrust into the spotlight over the past two years of the Mayor Rick Kriseman administration.

The dinner, really more of a lunch, begins at 2 p.m. Sunday with a second one at 3:30. Doors open for each 15 minutes early. Meals are free, but residents wishing to attend must RSVP to the city. Reserved spaces can be obtained by emailing urbanaffairs@stpete.org or calling 727-893-7885.

Kriseman, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and Director of Urban Affairs Niki GaskinCapehart are likely to talk about successes in the south of Central communities.

Among the most pivotal is the newly created Southside Community Redevelopment Area that stands to infuse millions of dollars into the area through dedicated property tax revenue. Although the CRA has yet to be fully established, it’s a beacon of light for residents who long for better youth services, more jobs and better job training, education and outreach.

Since its creation in May, the CRA has provided 57 emergency repairs, 44 purchasing assistance opportunities and given 26 homes rehab assistance.

Under the city’s 2020 plan in partnership with the 2020 Plan, the city created 200 additional employment and workforce readiness opportunities. That served more than 450 students this year.

The city also increased its fiscal year 2016 budget by nearly $900,000 to make room for “historic levels for youth employment.”

The city has also made great progress in developing and improving the Skyway Marina District spanning 34th Street South from 54th Avenue South north to about where the Ceridian building is located, 3201 34th St. S.

Improvements in that area include signs, better lighting, streetscaping and, most importantly, the expansion of Jabil into the Ceridian building. Leaders at St. Petersburg College have also vowed to partner with the city to provide job training for residents to find jobs in the expanded center.

Under Kriseman’s watch, the city has also implemented a number of policies that particularly benefit residents in poorer South St. Pete communities. Kriseman “banned the box,” which allows residents with criminal pasts to fill out job applications with the city without indicating past criminal history.

That move is considered crucial in ensuring reformed residents are able to stay reformed by finding meaningful employment. The city still conducts background checks, but only applicable criminal records would prohibit an ex-offender from being hired. That would include scenarios like crimes against children for an applicant seeking to work with or around children.

Kriseman also tweaked the city’s high-speed chase policy to reduce the number of residents hurt or killed during pursuits. Police have been long criticized for threatening harm on individuals in high-crime neighborhoods for chasing suspects in minor crimes. Now police cannot pursue a suspect for minor offenses.

Kriseman also bravely dismissed a panel of applicants for the top spot in the city’s police department. Instead, he hired former Clearwater Police Chief Anthony Holloway. Holloway’s successful “Park, Walk, Talk” policy aims at improving relationships with residents in poor neighborhoods where tensions with law enforcement were boiling over.

Kriseman has ushered in a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market in St. Pete to replace the shuttered Sweetbay and eliminate Midtown as a food desert. He’s also served as mayor for the opening of SPC’s new Midtown campus — though both efforts began under his predecessor’s watch.

Neighborhoods in the Southside still have a flurry of problems to overcome. Most notably, attention has been cast toward five failing elementary schools in the area. Since the Tampa Bay Times’ “Failure Factories” exposé this year, Kriseman has hired an education liaison to help improve outcomes for students. He’s voiced a commitment to youth services including after school programs and after school jobs.

While Southside is far from where its residents would like it to be, there has been considerable progress during the past two years.

The dinner is likely to play on many of those while still looking ahead toward the future.

Those attending the dinner will eat under the tree in front of the museum. The city is asking participants to park at the SPC Midtown campus just down the road on 22nd Street. They’re offering a free shuttle between the two destinations.

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Not sure how to ring in the New Year? Check out these local parties

As a New Year looms just around the corner, St. Pete residents are no doubt making plans to say farewell to 2015 and welcome 2016. For those who are still scrambling to make plans, there is no shortage of opportunity for fun and celebration.

St. Pete’s largest celebration is its annual First Night. Festivities begin throughout downtown at 4 p.m. and continue right up until midnight. There’s live music featuring just about every genre of music imaginable including this year’s headliner, Turkish band Kafkasso. The band even comes with belly dancers.

During the earlier hours of First Night, kids can come together to make hats and masks at First United Methodist Church. Kid-friendly activities also include a petting zoo, science shows, puppets and LED light activities.

A dance stage will be set up for various performances ranging from ballet to a light show at Williams Park. Studio @620 is hosting a series of interactive radio theater performances and American Stage is hosting improv comedy at the Sunshine Center auditorium.

Fireworks go off at 8 p.m. This is the 23rd anniversary of First Night in St. Pete and is the largest First Night celebration in the state.

While First Night is geared for all ages, those looking for a little more rambunctious evening also have some options.

Sip Social Lounge located at 179 First Ave. N. is hosting a party from 8 p.m. until 3 a.m. There’s a $25 cover that includes a two-hour open bar from 8 until 10 and “heavily passed” hors d’oeuvres. There’s a comedy show, midnight champagne toast and balloon drop. A “dress to impress” dress code will be strictly enforced.

Push Ultra Lounge in downtown begins its party at 9 p.m. with what the club describes as some of the areas best DJs.

The Arlington, Virginia-based reggae band Soja is playing at Jannus Live starting at 6:30 p.m.

And as is always the case in downtown St. Pete’s bustling night scene, bars around Central Avenue including hot spots like MacDinton’s and Mandarin Hide will be ripe for bar hopping after eating dinner at any of the area’s prime restaurants.

For those looking for a beachy New Year’s Eve celebration the TradeWinds resort on St. Pete Beach is hosting “Toast by the Coast” from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m. The $100 per person event comes with a fancy buffet including chef-carved beef steamship round with roasted garlic au jus, pear and blue cheese in phyllo, stuffed mini beef Wellington, Tandoori chicken sate and a pasta station featuring gnocchi in a sweet basil Pomodoro sauce and cheese tortellini in saffron cream with goat cheese. A dessert buffet will also be open.

Admission includes a champagne toast at midnight and noisemakers. Live music will be performed by the band Motel Funk. The resort is offering a two-night package for $598. It includes two nights at the resort or neighboring Guy Harvey Outpost, admission for two and all of the resorts amenities including the water slide and a covered beach cabana.

Caddy’s on the Beach just a few clicks North on Sunset Beach is hosting a no-cover party including live music by The Lori Cherry Band, party favors, champagne toast and hors d’oeuvres.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember for New Year’s Eve partiers is getting home safely. AAA is again offering its safe ride program. If you’ve found yourself imbibing just a little too much to drive, AAA will tow you and your car back home safely for free.

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Top St. Pete headlines in 2015: No. 2 – Raw sewage

As 2015 winds down we took a look back at the year’s news in St. Pete and came up with a list of the top 10 most absorbing events. Whether the news evoked outrage in a community, excitement or even heartbreak, these are the top headlines of 2015.

No. 2 – Raw sewage

Since August, Mayor Rick Kriseman has been plagued by toilet water. After the city experienced what was described as a 100-year rain event, his administration made the decision to divert more than 15 million gallons of untreated sewage into Clam Bayou,  Eckerd College campus’s waterfront, and Tampa Bay.

In doing so he officially enraged Gulfport, Eckerd College and just about every environmental activist in the city – and a bunch outside the city too.

The administration tried to explain it as an unavoidable circumstance that’s not likely to happen again and that the city simply just doesn’t get that much rain under normal circumstances. Officials contended that had something not been done the sewage could have started pouring into the city’s streets, even into people’s homes.

The problem, though, put a spotlight on the city’s aging, crumbling wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. City employees and elected officials now are working feverishly to find funding for sweeping improvements to a system that in some areas is 75 years old.

The controversy didn’t stop there. After it seemed reaction had calmed over the city’s infamous wastewater dump – or “poonami” as some clever reporters called it – the administration acknowledged another 15 million gallons of partially treated sewage also was dumped.

Partially treated sewage, as the Kriseman administration described it, is water that is one step shy of being considered reclaimed water. To break that down, the argument was that it was harmless and needn’t be reported. Nevertheless, the “ick” factor remains and further outrage ensued.

The unrest has been so pervasive it crept into other Kriseman critiques. Opponents of the new Pier reference the sewage dump, often painting Kriseman and his administration as “cronies” and anti-environment.

Even Tea Party activist David McKalip has complained at City Council meetings about the dump, though usees it as a way to criticize the city for not spending its money wisely.

Despite the roaring controversy following poonami 2015, it got the ball rolling on much-needed upgrades to city infrastructure. City Council subsequently hit the pause button on spending settlement funds from the BP oil disaster in anticipation that the money may need to be used to upgrade water infrastructure.

Plans are also being laid out to incrementally fund all necessary improvements during  the coming years. While some of those conversations may have occurred behind the scenes regardless of the sewage dump, it’s not likely the conversation would have been quite as popularized.

With waste and stormwater infrastructure in the public’s crosshairs, the city has no choice but to react.

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Top St. Pete headlines in 2015: No. 10 – Paid paternity leave

Editor’s note: As 2015 winds down, SPB is taking a look back at the year’s news in St. Pete and assembled a list of the top 10 most interesting developments. Whether the news evoked outrage in the community, excitement or even heartbreak, these are the top headlines of the past year.

No. 10: Paid paternity leave

Mayor Rick Kriseman announced in December 2014 that he would change city policy to allow six weeks paid leave for new parents. The change, effective Jan. 1, 2015, extended to biological mothers and fathers, and to adoptive parents.

The United States ranks dead last among 37 other developed nations in family leave policies. That’s according to a study by the Pew Research Center that analyzes the amount of paid time off families get for the birth or adoption of a child. The United States does not provide any paid leave.

Kriseman’s move was aimed at setting an example for other areas in the region.

“Allowing our employees to spend quality, paid time with the newest members of their families is the right thing to do and makes for better parents and employees,” Kriseman said in a news release. “Most importantly, this policy will benefit our children — the future of St. Petersburg.”

While the initial announcement actually happened in late 2014, the move rippled into the new year and drew praise from one of the nation’s top labor officials. Secretary of labor Thomas Perez visited the city in May to congratulate Kriseman on his forward-thinking policies.

That included not just expanded parental leave policies, but also extending sick leave to immediate family members.

“You shouldn’t have to win the boss lottery to take care of a sick kid,” Perez said during a press conference on the steps of City Hall. “Parents are putting sick children on the school bus because they can’t afford to miss work.”

During that same press conference Perez also gave a nod to some St. Pete employers for progressive employee leave policies including C1 Bank and the Tampa Bay Rays.

The paid leave improvements were one of several steps the Kriseman administration has so far taken to improve employee moral. Kriseman has taken steps to improve diversity and equality in the workforce, raised the minimum wage for workers and expanded a city health center where employees can get free or low-cost healthcare on the clock to part-time workers. That center had previously only been available to full-time employees.

That final move is still subject to City Council approval and is a part of collective bargaining with the city’s employee union.

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Hawkers Asian Street Fare to open in Edge District

Come this March St. Pete residents won’t have to travel all the way to Asia to experience authentic street fare popular in areas like China and Singapore. The growing chain Hawkers is opening its third location in the Edge District near downtown St. Pete.

Named after street vendors in Asia who sell local cuisine made from locally available ingredients, Hawkers offers street snacks common in Vietnam, mainland China, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Nothing on the menu is more than $8.50.

The latest gastro hotspot will open at 1235 Central Ave. in the space formerly occupied by Taps and Tequila. The menu boasts exotic fares enough to make anyone’s mouth water – dishes such as duck tacos, curry duck noodles and roti prata.

The restaurant is the brainchild of lifelong friends Allen Lo, Danny Ho, Wayne Yung and Kaleb Harrell. They opened their first Hawkers in Orlando in 2011. The concept was meant to be new and unique.

The partners packaged their concept into a restaurant with concrete floors and a bold color scheme.

They opened a second restaurant in early 2014 in Jacksonville.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, the team sought a community for a third restaurant that would be likely to be open-minded about new food choices. Harrell told the Times that St. Pete is just that place.

“Locals are culturally affluent, social media literate and have an adventurous palate — these are the behavioral characteristics we look for. I sum it up by saying that if you can point out Malaysia on a map, then you’re probably a good guest for Hawkers,” Harrell said.

Indeed, the Hawkers crew chose a location that has emerged as a growing beacon of millennial interests. The area boasts several bustling craft breweries including the popular Green Bench as well as a host of other unique restaurants featuring Cajun, Cuban and Thai cuisine and one of the city’s hottest burrito joints, Mercado.

Other menu items serving as Hawkers’ staples include lo mein dishes, five-spice meats and tofu, noodles and rice. The restaurant, if all goes according to plan, is slated to open March 1.

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Turn your Christmas tree into mulch

St. Pete sanitation officials want residents to turn their Christmas trees into “yuletide mulch” this year. Residents can place their trees next to their garbage and the city will collect the trees and turn them into yard mulch.

Christmas tree pickup is scheduled for January 9. Residents should not put trees on the curb or near alley trashcans until January 8. For those residents taking their trees down sooner, they can still be recycled early by taking them to one of the city’s five brush sites. Those locations are:

  • 1000 62nd Avenue N.E.
  • 7750 26th Avenue North
  • 2500 26th Avenue South
  • 4015 Dr. M.L. King Jr. Street South
  • 2453 20th Avenue North

Brush sites are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. The sites open at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday. The sites will be closed on New Year’s Day.

Before recycling, all trees should be cleaned of any ornaments, lights, tinsel or other decorations. Tree disposal bags should also be removed. The city is asking residents to place the trees next to the city trashcans, but not in it.

Christmas tree special collection is a free city service.

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Shareholder sues C1 Bank over alleged raw deal

A C1 Bank shareholder thinks the company got a bum deal in its acquisition by Bank of the Ozarks. The Arkansas-based company is purchasing C1 for $402.5 million. That translates to about $25 per share.

A shareholder by the name of Roger Mariani filed a class-action lawsuit in Pinellas County courts on Monday alleging the terms of the deal were selfishly approved by C1 Bank CEO Trevor Burgess and his board of directors, which includes former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

In Mariani’s suit he alleges the agreement process was undemocratic and that the directors were “attempting to lock up the proposed transaction with deal protection devices that preclude other bidders from making a successful competing offer.”

In other words, the company could have held out for more money.

These kinds of lawsuits are not uncommon when companies merge or are sold. Entire firms exist to represent shareholders in such transactions. According to the Mergers & Acquisitions Law Center, “The ultimate goal of a merger and acquisition lawsuit is to ensure that a potential deal is fair for all of the shareholders of the company.”

The Center argues that deals are often “hashed out by a “good old boy” network of corporate chieftains without much accountability or regard for the interests of shareholders.”

C1 Bank announced the sale last month. The St. Pete-based community bank is worth $1.7 billion. There are 32 branches across the state. It’s the 18th largest bank in Florida with branches concentrated in the largest metropolitan areas. C1 Bank recently signed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on as clients.

Under the terms of the purchase, Burgess will stay on as chief innovation officer and president of the bank’s Florida operations.

The lawsuit filed against Burgess, Sink and the rest of the bank’s board of directors seeks to halt the sale in favor of a better deal. If that isn’t done, Mariani will seek damages.

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