There have been some intense, sharp-edged encounters between Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker as the two men compete this summer to become mayor of St. Petersburg for the next four years.
Wednesday night’s encounter at the Museum of Fine Arts wasn’t one of them.
Instead, the current and former leader of the city talked before an invitation-only crowd about their love of St. Pete, and how they will work on maintaining the city’s high quality of life — especially in the downtown corridor and various arts districts — as rapacious developers try to get a bigger piece of it.
The nearly two-hour long encounter was presented by St. Petersburg Preservation, focusing on four main themes: the arts, historic preservation, locally owned and independent businesses and traditional neighborhoods.
Moderated by local historian Gary Mormino, both men were given several minutes to answer each question; each did so in a breezy manner. It was only about an hour into the affair before there was an even a semblance of conflict. Disagreement began when Kriseman talked up his desire to eliminate — or substantially reduce — any chain stores from being built along Central Avenue between 31st Street and Beach Drive.
“What we’re trying to figure out is if we do it with a stick or a carrot?” he told the audience. “Do we incentivize, or do we penalize? And truthfully, we don’t have the answer to that yet.”
The mayor acknowledged receiving tremendous “pushback” from the concept but said it was an important decision for the city to protect the culture of the community going forward.
Baker responded by saying that he would work to bring people together, not divide them, referring to a meeting he recently conducted between landlords, tenants and those with business interests in the Edge District about the challenges they all faced. “I believe that’s how you deal with issues like that. You bring people together, and you throw out ideas that are dividing people into two groups,” he said, adding that he would work to boost small local businesses.
Seemingly in every municipal election, developers and business interests complain about the length of time it takes to get through the bureaucracy of city hall when it comes to the permitting processes, and St. Pete is not immune to those criticisms.
“I hear that wherever I go in the city,” said Baker. “I hear that it is taking me forever to get to the permitting department … that is not how you support businesses in general.”
Kriseman responded back aggressively, saying 30,000 permits were issued last year and the city is on pace to have a “potentially” record number of permits issued in 2017.
However, the mayor recognized that there was a still a problem with having enough people in key positions, and said that his building director and fire marshall have a “green light” to hire more personnel if they see fit to do so. And he said that the city was having more meetings with developers before they submit their paperwork, as well as incentivizing them to do pre-screening.
The two candidates were also asked what they could do to stop downtown from overdevelopment.
For Baker, it began with taking an inventory of buildings to ensure what they want to be preserved, looking at one project at a time.
Kriseman referred to his Integrated Sustainability Action plan, where climate change and sea-level rise must be taken into consideration when looking at any new development, especially in the downtown corridor.
Candidates were asked (and ducked) questions about their favorite neighborhood and favorite places to go downtown. Both said the Detroit Hotel was their favorite historic structure, a building originally built in 1888 and then restored and converted to condos in 2002.
They also shared a love for what is known as “First Block” — located between Central Ave. & 1st Ave. N. and between 2nd & 3rd streets in downtown St. Pete. Kriseman wanted the City Council to give it a local historic designation last fall. But, much to his disappointment, the City Council deadlocked 4-4 on the issue last fall.
When asked about their favorite kind of art in the city, Kriseman said he loved the murals: “These incredible artists have taken what’s great about St. Pete and made it into a canvass.”
Baker said he preferred a Monet painting, adding that his favorite thing ever was to play guitar at the Saturday morning market.
While there were questions about affordable housing and the Midtown area, the economic issues with the south side of town were largely not part of the conversation, despite taking place just days after the Tampa Bay Times reported on the fact that despite hundreds of millions of dollars has been poured into Midtown since 1999, the area remains stuck in poverty.
Four other candidates for mayor are on the August 29 ballot: Jesse Nevel, Paul Congemi, Anthony Cates and Theresa Lassiter.