Saturday’s South St. Pete debate: more than just the Pier

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After today’s mayoral/City Council debate in South St. Petersburg, one can begin to think there might be more to this election than just the Pier or The Lens.

Four of the five candidates for mayor met at the Sanderlin Center on 22 Avenue South.  They were there to talk Midtown and the city’s struggling south side. Even Kathleen Ford made it to the event, after initially saying she would miss the event since it was her husband’s birthday.

Sponsoring the debate were the St. Pete Democratic Club and the League of Women Voters. Most of the topics in the more than two hours of debate on issues directly affecting Midtown — how to attract businesses, high paying jobs and stimulate economic growth.

They also discussed the environment and changing the St. Petersburg Police chase policy. The Lens and Pier did make a brief appearance.  

Mayor Bill Foster, former City Council member and state Rep. Rick Kriseman, as well as Anthony Cates — a Midtown resident for “all his 23 years” — discussed economic inequality, quality of life and ways the southern part of the city can catch up with the rest of the region’s “half billion dollars in development,” as Mayor Foster boasted.

City Council Members Wengay Newton and Steve Kornell were on hand in the audience of about 125 people.

Although the city chose not to have citywide early voting for the 2013 primary election, mailed ballots have already begun to go out. Newton said voters could also cast ballots at the county Supervisor of Elections office at 501 First Ave. N.

All questions came from public submissions, starting with how each candidate would describe Midtown, and if they would like to live in south St. Pete. Three candidates answered different variations of “of course” they would be in Midtown.

The lone exception was Rick Kriseman.

Kriseman, who used “inequality” to describe Midtown, said he wouldn’t live in the area “because it doesn’t have enough to offer” in the way of services, retail and dining. He linked it with his plan to make the area more favorable for allotting city funds for services and funds to the region to attract retail and restaurants.

Kriseman emphasized his two terms in the as State House throughout much of the debate.  He believes it will help when working with Tallahassee and the federal government for the benefit of Midtown.

Kriseman also criticized Foster on his handling of the firing of popular Midtown leader Goliath Davis. He said that once elected, he would take on a staff member whose sole focus was Midtown.

The debate had both mayor and city council candidates agreeing—with a few exceptions—on a majority of issues, especially with the city collaborating with Pinellas County to establish a long-awaited Community Redevelopment Area for Midtown.

A CRA would open the area to a series of grants and tax breaks for businesses opening in the area. The Dome Industrial area, downtown and Beach Drive are also a few of the city’s existing CRA’s.  

Foster, saying he would “absolutely” live in Midtown, focused on his record, highlighting how he pushed to appoint Midtown a CRA.

“I have a confession,” Foster said. “I am a Republican. But there is no Republican or Democrat in filling a pothole.”

“Judge me on my record,” he added.

The candidates only received one question about the Pier, and that was if they felt there was too much talk about the issue during the election season.

Kriseman said that although “it warranted significant discussion,” he “hated seeing so much talk about the Pier” when the city’s south side needs jobs.

”Let’s not lose focus,” he added.

Ford, who talked mentioned the Pier in her comments early on, said the top priority should have been ensuring the people have a say.

“The base is structurally sound,” Ford said of the Pier. “We wasted $3.8 million dollars, closed 28 businesses and put 400 hundred people out of work.”

Cates thought the Pier “is not a big enough issue” and there are issues that are more serious, like the environment.  

Foster continued to justify the decision to close the inverted pyramid. He said that it was a drain on the city of about $1.5 million a year. However, he is glad the issue is coming to a vote Aug. 27.

“Thank goodness,” Foster said, “that the people earned the right to vote” on future of the Pier.

After the mayoral candidates had their say, it was time for the candidates for City Council.  Chair Karl Nurse and his opponents Sharon Russ and Trevor Mallory represented the race for District 6. Amy Foster, Steve Galvin, Robert Davis and Alex Duensing debated for the District 8 race.

For the District 4 race, civic activist Darden Rice, Carolyn Fries and Richard Eldridge also took the stage. David McKalip was a no-show.  

When asked, Nurse about the Rays’ future in St. Petersburg, the District 6 incumbent said, the city had time on the issue.

“We have a huge advantage over Tampa,” Nurse said. “They cannot solve their transit problem, and by that time, we will have voted on our transit package.”

“We have time on this,” he added.

Rice talked about the “next critical step” if voters reject The Lens, saying “the same blunt instrument” of citizen involvement was the main reason the issue became so divisive.

“We need new models of public engagement,” Rice added. “If we shortcut the process, you will have to go back and do it right.”

Mallory decried the lack of locally owned, African-American businesses and said “Midtown needs a big overhaul,” while Russ criticized incumbent Nurse for being “one of the one percent” who could afford to pay more in taxes.

According to Nurse, who is leading in the polls for his re-election, the best thing voters can do for District 6 is by filling the other open seats with people who have similar beliefs to him, so things can get done.

Alex Duensing had the last word with a promise to “be the voice” of District 8. “Networking” would be the theme of his term on the council, as well as reaching out to residents and businesses, so he can “know what they want.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.