Karl Nurse: "A lobbyist for good things"

click to enlarge Karl Nurse: "A lobbyist for good things" - Lori Ballard
Lori Ballard
Karl Nurse: "A lobbyist for good things"

Who? Karl Nurse, 52, is the face of St. Petersburg's neighborhoods. He is the former three-term president of the Council Of Neighborhood Organizations, an active Sierra Club member and sits on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Board. He is also the founder and president of Bay Tech Labels, a printing company.

Sphere of influence: Through his 30 years of work as an environmental and community activist, Nurse has had his hands in everything from living-green initiatives to affordable housing and homeless issues. He serves on the Pinellas County Homeless Task Force and the St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services board. Though he stepped down as president of CONA earlier this year, Nurse still maintains a strong presence as the go-to guy for neighborhood issues.

How he makes a difference: Nurse has a knack for bringing together groups of people with varying agendas by illustrating how their goals overlap. He cites the Living Green Expo, in which he forged relationships between environmentalists, neighborhood associations, city officials and Progress Energy. "I guess in a strange way I kind of view myself as a lobbyist for good things," he says.

CL: In what area do you feel you wield the most influence?

I really wield the most influence in being able to talk to politicians about issues. I know most of them, and they are willing to at least have a conversation with me. One of the hardest things [for activists to find] is someone in your group that knows a politician well enough to stop them and have a 20-minute conversation about an issue. Just because of what I've done over the years, I can do that.

How are you able to influence elected officials?

Most of the time I can find common ground. ... You can usually get people to agree that lower crime or protecting the little bit of wild land we have left is a good idea. If you don't get hung up on the how, sometimes that diffuses the situation. That has been useful with most politicians, no matter where they seem to be philosophically. ...

Sometimes the greatest victory is the idea that you give a politician. I can take an idea to a politician with enough background stuff so that work is done and then let it become their idea. And that's very fun. I call my children when it happens.

What is the most pressing issue in St. Pete right now?

Crime. I've worked a lot on crime issues over the last 10 years, and I really cannot make any progress in the police department. And that's heading for a train wreck.

About 60 percent of the officers are less than five years from retiring and then we have a huge bubble of almost 30 percent that have less than two years [experience]. We're bringing on officers, but we keep losing them. The leadership is really in denial, and they don't want to face it. It's the single most frustrating issue that I've worked on.

I am dead certain that we are on a terrible path with what we're doing with our police department and no matter how far they stick their head in the sand, it's not going to change it. The earlier we deal with it, the better off we'll be. And their strategy today is simply: 'We are not going to deal with it. The police chief will be retired; the mayor will be gone, and when the police department collapses, it will be under someone else's watch.'

How about regionally?

Transportation. St. Pete is in better shape than most, because we designed our city as a grid, which tends to diffuse traffic. But most of [Pinellas County] was designed at the stupidest time ever, which [created] a whole series of cul-de-sac, one-way-in, one-way-out subdivisions stacked next to each other. So that tends to dump all the traffic on U.S. 19 or McMullen Booth Road, and that mandates gridlock. In many communities, you can't buy anything — you can't buy a newspaper — without getting in your car. Hillsborough is radically worse. Some of it is just sort of a suburban madness and then some of it is an inability to say to a developer: "No, this is where we want to take our community and what you want to do doesn't follow the rules. It's not what we want — come back when you got something that fits.' Most communities have a real hard time doing that.

Are there any new ideas that you're excited about?

I think I'm most excited about what Charlie Crist is doing on energy. Crist has sort of moved Florida from 42nd in intelligent energy policy to about second in a flash. And you're seeing the power companies getting it. I think we have real potential of making huge changes there.

Who influences you?

Darden Rice is probably the most creative organizer right now. And Lorraine Margeson. She is an Internet activist. Almost all the stuff you see going on in county government, Lorraine is behind. She does it all on the Net. She combines being tech savvy with doing an enormous amount of research. She was really the person who played the biggest role in making the Brooker Creek Preserve a driving issue. I get an e-mail from her at least once a day.

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