Both Bill Foster and Rick Kriseman agree that St. Petersburg is going in the right direction. Mayor Foster says if the citizenry agrees, they should vote for him in November to maintain the good times.
But Rick Kriseman says now is not the time to stay complacent, and if he's elected, the city will be even better.
Those were the final comments made by the mayoral candidates in their first mano-à-mano debate of the general election season on the USFSP campus, two weeks after they qualified for the general election and eight weeks before voters will decide on who they want leading them for the next four years.
In a debate focusing on small business issues, the two clashed early on, differing on whether the city has done enough to promote the economic development of the city away from downtown.
Kriseman, who resides in West St. Pete, which has traditionally felt isolated from the rest of the city, said that he's met numerous business owners who complain that nobody from the city ever inquires about how they're doing.
Foster said he "naturally disagreed," referring to the city giving $24,000 in seed money to help establish the Edge District west of downtown. He also referred to the Central Avenue Redevelopment Plan approved by the City Council a year ago.
Kriseman then pounced when Mayor Foster referred to the Greenhouse, a one-stop facility for starting or helping grow local businesses. "I'm glad he's finally done that, but it took 1,648 days from the time he took office to the time that plan was unveiled." He then blasted Foster for the Central Avenue project, saying, "But like a lot of things in the city right now, it's stuck in quicksand. It's not moving forward," adding that "half the businesses " along that corridor have no idea it's even happening. "You can't get the businesses engaged if they don't know what's happening."
The two also clashed on how burdensome regulations were for small businesses, with Kriseman saying that he's heard complaints from developers having to work with one code inspector and then having to start all over again with another. Foster countered that the city has done a "great job" of removing impediments to entrepreneurs and developers, including the addition of online permitting.
Both men have worked as lawyers in the private sector, so they were challenged when asked to talk about their own business experience. Foster referred to himself as "the CEO" of the state's fourth biggest city, and said his work as an attorney and his first term in office as mayor has been "intense job training."
Kriseman talked about how his father dramatically grew his business from a small warehouse to one nearly a city block long, and how he learned from him. But he never mentioned what his father actually did.
Foster responded by saying that he was glad to hear that Kriseman's father was an entrepreneur, but said the candidate hadn't answered the question.
Some of the carping was familiar territory, such as when Foster accused Kriseman of being ineffectual as a state Representative in Tallahassee, with Kriseman retorting that Foster should have been up in the state Capitol more often to lobby for the city.
After the mayor boasted that he was "at the table" to bring Johns Hopkins Medicine to St. Pete to work with All Children's Hospital, Kriseman snarkily replied that Foster was also at the hospital with HMA and with Sweetbay Grocery and should have known that both were going to leave the city. "If he was at the table, I don't know what he was doing when he was sitting there."
The candidates come back with two debates on Wednesday, including a morning session exclusively discussing the arts.