Joe Henderson: No matter the outcome of St. Pete mayor’s race, the city wins either way

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Rick Baker’s much-anticipated entry into the St. Petersburg mayoral race ensures several things, all of them good.

It means voters will have two highly qualified and effective candidates from which to choose.

Democratic incumbent Rick Kriseman has had some issues, just like every mayor of every big city in the United States. He has been mostly successful, though, at navigating the needs and desires of a growing and, more importantly, evolving city.

Baker, a Republican, served as St. Pete’s mayor from 2001-2010 and left on good terms with the people he led. He was particularly adept at reaching out to all areas of the community, and much of the good we see happening on Kriseman’s watch was set in motion by the foundation Baker helped lay.

That’s not to say there aren’t significant differences in the two candidates. One area that could be intensely interesting is how the two men would approach the issue of a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Assuming the Rays haven’t zeroed in on a stadium site in either Hillsborough or Pinellas counties by the Aug. 29 election, the outcome of the mayor’s race could mean a starkly different approach to the long-simmering issue.

Kriseman has pushed for a new stadium to be built on land next to Tropicana Field. His vision is that it will be the centerpiece of a large-scale retail development. He has offered few details of how to pay for it, although presumably that would include a significant amount of public money. Inside a slick 43-page presentation about why the ballpark should be built, it says, “The City is committed to continuing our MLB legacy by working in partnership with the Rays to build a new contemporary ballpark for future generations.”

Translation: the words “in partnership” probably means Kriseman intends for the city to pay what likely would be a large chunk of the project.

Baker, on the other hand, has worked with developer Bill Edwards since 2012 and was the front man for Edwards’ plan to privately finance an estimated $80 million expansion of Al Lang Stadium so St. Petersburg can land a Major League Soccer franchise.

Given the trend toward sports owners paying most, if not all, of stadium-related costs, this could be a key point of contention in the campaign.

Kriseman will be able to tout the cooperation he has had with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn on finding regional solutions such as the Cross Bay Ferry and other long-range transportation issues. But, the stench from the nasty sewage spills last year after Hurricane Hermine may remain in voters’ minds.

St. Petersburg was a different city when Baker was in charge, a point Kriseman already made in a sharply worded response to Baker’s announcement Monday that he is running. He will paint Baker as someone whose time has passed.

Whatever the outcome, though, I think this is one of those rare cases where no matter which candidate gets the most votes, the city wins either way.

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Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.