Tuesday night, incumbent Bill Foster and candidate Rick Kriseman met at the Palladium Theater for the mayoral debate, “A Conversation with the Candidates,” hosted by Bay News 9 and the Tampa Bay Times, and moderated by anchor Al Ruechel and political editor Adam Smith. The final televised debate covered topics ranging from the St. Petersburg Pier to crime to the future of the Tamps Bay Rays. While there was plenty of finger-pointing and political jabs, the overall debate gave good insight into each hopeful mayor’s future plans for the city of St. Pete.
The biggest topic of the night was the future of the St. Petersburg Pier, and both candidates had a solid plan for it’s future.
The moderator quoted one city council member as saying, “basically, we’re going to wind up with a pier that nobody hates.”
To which Foster replied, “Well, that’s not the case. We’re going to wind up with a Pier that most people love.”
Foster laid out part one of his plan for the Pier, “The mistake we made before is it was all about form, and then we tried to talk about function. We’re going to flip that around, we’re going to talk about function and then form.”
The plan included surveying a thousand people, relying on 828 Alliance recommendations and completing an RFQ-or request for qualifications-until the city finds the top 5 or 6 candidates for the job.
Kriseman believed the best place to start was with the recommendations from the 63 public hearings held about the Pier, “We start with those recommendations. We put them back out to the public, and we say, ‘what do you like that’s in them, what don’t you like that’s in them.’”
Kriseman stated that, within 3 months, with community input, a taskforce could bring new proposals to architects, who in turn would come back with 10 to 15 suggestions the public could vote on. From there, the top three designs will be voted on by city council, and within 9 months the city could begin moving forward with the new strategy for the Pier.
Improving Midtown and Local Business
Another important question of the night was delivering on promises made to Midtown residents.
Kriseman acknowledged out how little reconstruction Midtown and the south side have seen, but his focus remained on convincing more businesses to take a chance on Midtown, as well as assisting the needs of the businesses already there.
“We have to focus on bringing those amenities to that community, but we also have to support the small businesses that have already taken a chance and have opened in Midtown. And we do that by paying attention to their needs.”
One example he cited was the restrictive sign regulations placed on businesses. “What I hear from them is, ‘We can’t communicate that we’re here. Codes keep coming to us, and telling us to take our signs down’…If that’s a problem they’re having, then that’s something we need to be looking at as a city.”
Foster replied with a list of improvements already in action. He stated that he “led the charge to community redevelopment” in Midtown and Child’s Park. With his help, Wal-Mart became the replacement grocery store for Sweetbay, St. Petersburg College has committed breaking ground for a new 45,000 ft. campus on the Deuces and there are plans to reopen the Manhattan Casino.
Business vacancy has not just effected Midtown; it has been a concern for the whole of St. Petersburg.
When asked how Foster would distinguish the St. Pete area from Tampa, he stated that vacancy rates were down and the partnership of the St. Pete Greenhouse with the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce was established to help small businesses succeed. He also plans on extending the next budget to bring in people to help sell the city to larger outside businesses.
Kriseman emphasized his plan to look outside the city and state for possible businesses. He called the mayor a “cheerleader” that is there to bring business back to the community.
Future of The Rays and St. Pete Stadiums
One of the biggest topics for St. Pete voters was the future of the Tampa Bay Rays. Both candidates agreed on allowing the team to look outside of St. Petersburg for a new home, while emphasizing protecting the taxpayer’s interest. They both felt it was more important for the Tampa Bay Area to keep Major League Baseball, as opposed to losing the team entirely.
Kriseman was the only one to extend on how he would protect taxpayers. Stating: “If they are going to amend the agreement, there is a cost to do that. And I will not permit them to amend this agreement…unless we receive something in return for doing that.”
When moderators asked Foster if the team writing a check would allow more flexibility, he insisted the discussions in progress were confidential and could not discuss them.
While both candidates agreed on the importance and impact the Rays have on the city, they both saw huge potential in the 85-acre stadium if the team packed up and moved. Both envisioned a redevelopment and mixed use of the downtown urban setting that Foster referred to as a potential “renaissance 3.0 for the city of St. Petersburg.”
The Al Lang Stadium, off Bay Shore Drive, was also discussed. There have been public and private conversations about tearing down the field to create a straight waterfront path to USF St. Pete. Both candidates approved of the idea, but felt that community input was first and foremost.
Crime and Policing
One viewer question asked how the candidates would go about fixing crime in the city.
When asked to assess crime, Kriseman felt that “community policing” was the missing piece of the puzzle.
“It’s really a philosophy that engages the community and involves the relationship between the community and the police department,” Kriseman said. “I think we’ve lost our way in that respect.”
While he still believes in “predictive policing” and utilizing new technologies, his overall plan was to reestablish trust and communication between citizens and law enforcement.
Foster led by saying, “any crime is too high.” He felt the strongest route to go was to continue utilizing new technologies and to bring in the best police recruits in.
The moderator extended the question to include how the candidates would go about searching for a new police chief.
Kriseman stressed expanding the search outside of the city, and even outside of the state. He was open about having an outside firm lead the nationwide search, while involving city council in the final decision.
Foster ‘s focus for the new police chief had to do more with the concept of “predictive policing.” His plan is to find someone who “has a grasp on communication management with this 21st century policing-predictive policing-models (and) crime prevention…”
Another viewer question addressed the bus schedule and the bigger question of supporting mass transportation. Both candidates are for mass transportation and Greenlight Pinellas, a plan to raise sales tax by one percent to better mass transit systems, but there were a couple differences in their strategies.
Kriseman connected mass transit to the overall success of a city. The candidate is looking to extend the system by pushing for a high-speed rails and even water taxis. Kriseman would like to see St. Pet compete with larger cities like Boston and believes the only way to do that is to go bigger.
Foster, on the other hand, sees more potential in “rubberized wheels.” He said he would push the message to not get “hung up on the words light rail” and instead extend on the existing bus system to have more routes, flexibility with scheduling and to have a better connection to Tampa.
The election will be held Nov. 5th, where citizens will vote on their choice of mayor, as well as, city council members for districts 2, 4, 6 and 8. You can find your local voting precinct and voting polls here.