Rick Kriseman credits Rick Baker, not Bill Foster, for downtown’s recovery

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If voters are to believe challenger Rick Kriseman, it is Mayor Bill Foster’s predecessor who should take credit for revitalizing downtown and bringing Walmart to midtown St. Petersburg.

In a City Hall debate Monday, Kriseman said that the building boom under way is the result of projects fostered under the Rick Baker administration, not by Foster.

Foster objected to Kriseman’s assertion, at one point his denials interrupting the challenger’s turn to speak.

“I helped navigate this city through the worst recession that we ever had,” Foster said in his opening remarks. “There’s a half-billion dollars in economic growth today. We are welcoming to new business. Property values and home sales are up.”

In the waning weeks of the mayoral race, a long series of forums seemed to take its toll on Foster, who in previous debates has taken the offense. Monday night, Foster was on the defense several times.

He said that he had no idea that Sweetbay planned to close its grocery store in Midtown, since the chain is owned by a foreign company. “The company was out of Belgium. How was I supposed to know?” Foster asked.

Foster also argued that the city is having trouble holding on to the Tampa Bay Rays not because the baseball team wants to move to Tampa but because it wants to leave the region altogether.

“The owners don’t see Tampa Bay as a viable sports market,” said Foster, adding that his recourse is to keep the team abiding by its contract to play in St. Pete.

Kriseman said that Foster never brought this argument up in previous debates., instead focusing on whether to let the team explore its options in the Tampa Bay area. Kriesman had criticized Foster in his managing the city’s interests with the major league ball team as well as in closing the St. Pete Pier.

Foster also complained about a mailer that went out to voters that was highly critical of Foster’s handling of the fire readiness fee. “I pushed the fire readiness fee because it was something the City Council asked us to explore.” He said that the issue was being misconstrued before voters.

But Kriseman argued that Foster had tried to pass a fire readiness fee, when residents already were paying for fire services through their property taxes. Kriseman said he also objected to a plan to put a lien on a person’s property if the fee was not paid. The entire plan was later dropped, which Foster pointed out to his rival.

Foster said that for his part he considered the fee an additional revenue source when the city was having a tough time in the recession.

“It was a tax you already were paying for,” Kriseman countered.

The one light moment in the tense hour-long debate came when the moderator, a professor from USF St.Pete, asked each candidate to brand St. Pete in a 30-second commercial.

Without trying to come up with a pitch, Kriseman said he would highlight the arts, culture and waterfront as well as the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

Foster said that his pitch would be: “We’re not your grandmother’s St. Pete anymore. There is a greater vibe”– in the neighborhoods, waterfront and arts.