Let's get tanked: A new St. Pete think tank hopes to help shape the city’s future

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click to enlarge LOOKING AHEAD: Bardine, Angela Leiner and Canaan McCaslin of St. Pete Forward. - nicole abbett
nicole abbett
LOOKING AHEAD: Bardine, Angela Leiner and Canaan McCaslin of St. Pete Forward.

Imagine it’s 2013.

Over the course of a few beers, you and some friends come up with an amazing idea for the Pier, which has just been idled pending the drawn-out decision over its fate:

“What if we could lure The Walking Dead to film a season at the Pier while the city awaits the structure’s fate?”

“The building is kind of a zombie itself, and could be transformed into a zombie-proof fortress.”

“The city could give the studio tax incentives and get tons of free tourism advertising in exchange.”

“It’d be a total win-win.”

The next morning, you laugh off the conversation as you wash down two Advils. Without the means (or time) to thoroughly research proposals that could turn such a seemingly outlandish child of Florida Cracker Wheat Ale into a real thing, the idea dies.

Had the nascent nonprofit St. Pete Forward been around at the time, you and your friends could have approached them, and they could have told you your booze-hatched idea wasn’t so hare-brained after all.

“We’d look at what other cities have done. Walking Dead is filmed in Atlanta,” said Canaan McCaslin, one of the organization’s founders. “We’d look at how Atlanta got The Walking Dead, how much they offered them, what’s the return on investment, and other data points.”

Armed with the right information, assuming it actually would be feasible, McCaslin and his cohorts could have pitched the idea of luring the show to St. Pete in a concrete professional way city officials wouldn’t likely dismiss as a random citizen thought bubble.

Launched earlier this summer, St. Pete Forward is a think tank headed by McCaslin and two other young professionals living in the city, Johnny Bardine and Angela Leiner. CL sat down with the three recently at new St. Pete haunt The Blue Goose.

Think tanks are all over the place, operating at city, state and national levels. Some serve as sort of an academic arm to equip decision-makers with good information; among the better known of these are the conservative Heritage Foundation and the more moderate Brookings Institute. The Urban Land Institute, which St. Pete recently enlisted in the creation of its Downtown Waterfront Master Plan, is another. Some consider St. Petersburg’s Poynter Institute for Media Studies (which owns the Tampa Bay Times) a think tank because of how it studies journalism and other aspects of media.
Less common are organizations that zero in on issues specific to a locale, especially in smaller cities like St. Pete.

Their formation typically arises out of concern for the future.

“One of the reasons you try to mobilize resources and do something like this is because you think you’re at a critical moment, that there’s an opportunity that, with a push, you could move the community in a particular direction that you think it needs to move,” said political analyst Scott Paine, director of leadership development & education at the Florida League of Cities. “It gives ammunition, it gives information, it gives a place to come together for people who have not only the policy concern in common, but also the approach to the policy concern in common.”

That seems to be the case with St. Pete Forward.

Bardine, a family law attorney who has run multiple local political campaigns, mostly for progressive candidates, said the idea came from wanting to affect how city officials govern after they’re elected.

“I think St. Pete Forward was born of out of two places: frustration and optimism,” Bardine said. “As someone who’s managed a lot of campaigns around here, you’re often frustrated at the control you have after folks get elected to enact the policies that you want to see enacted, or at least you sort of realize limitations they have.”

He said St. Pete is at a crucial point in its history, and decisions made now by the mayor and city council will profoundly affect the city’s future identity and its people.

“Born from that was a need for thoughtful, nuanced policy that can move us forward in the right direction at such a critical moment,” he said.

Even though he likes the general direction in which St. Pete is heading, there’s only so much the city can do on its own.

“I think we have the best council the city’s ever had,” Bardine said. “I think we’ve had the best mayor the city’s ever had. But what they lack is the time and staff and human resources that are necessary to make the absolute best decisions. I think the goal of this organization is going to be to gather the best information [on which] our elected officials can make the best decisions possible for our community.”

click to enlarge FREE THINKERS: Johnny Bardine (center) and cohorts are ready to unleash some new ideas. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
FREE THINKERS: Johnny Bardine (center) and cohorts are ready to unleash some new ideas.

St. Pete Forward is just getting off the ground, and thus hasn’t presented anything to the city yet. At the heart of all of the projects it tackles is the question of whether St. Pete is going to continue to redefine itself or slide back into its old ways.

“Can we change things, make things better for everybody, or are we going to relapse and go back to the old St. Pete of the past, you know, grandma’s retirement community?” Leiner said. “So what is that future? Is that future the young professional [community] we’re building now, the new businesses that are coming to town, or are we going to go back to, ‘Hey, my parents live there. I went and visited them,’ and that’s all anybody knows of this area?”

For McCaslin, it’s the debate over the St. Petersburg Pier, and the apparent generational split over whether to keep the inverted pyramid or not, that comes to mind.

“It looked like it was going to go one direction before a lot of young folks came and voiced their opinions on what we wanted as a Pier for our generation,” he said. “Literally a lot of City Council members, the Pier Selection Committee, said it was young professionals’ emerging leaders that made them think, ‘Wait, maybe this isn’t what we need. Maybe this upside-down pyramid isn’t the right thing for this generation.’ So it sort of shifted the direction of where we’re going to go. It’s going to change the look of the city.”

With these and other issues, St. Pete is a likely candidate for think-tanking.

“Trying to get into that game if you care about where the city is going makes sense, and a think tank is one way to bring people together and mobilize some resources to do that,” Paine said. “I think there are a number of things that have been happening in St. Petersburg in terms of redevelopment, in terms of a changing demographic in the last decade or so, and certainly I think a kind of dynamic in the municipal politics that suggests, yes, this could well be one of those moments where a significant change of direction, or an acceleration of a particular direction could take place.”

Guided by a board whose members include Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and others, the St. Pete Forward triumvirate plan on asking academia to help them objectively analyze data and review case studies on what other cities have done.

An obvious starting point for the group would be transit, they said.

After all, the city recently lost its most recent shot at light rail and expanded transportation options when the county shot down an initiative that would have slightly raised the sales tax to fund those projects.

But with Tampa Bay traffic likely to be stuck in gridlock for the foreseeable future, those pushing for expanded public transit options have to look for other means of going about it.

“Transportation’s a big issue right now, there’s lots of grant money out there for various things, whether it be promoting green transportation, bike transportation, things like that,” Leiner said. “But then there’s also grant money out there for policies related to economic development.”

St. Pete City Councilwoman Amy Foster said the group could be helpful if the emphasis is on solutions. Plenty of activists present problems to the city, she said, but the bigger challenge is developing ways to tackle them.

“If it was a source of solutions we could match to problems, then that certainly would be helpful,” she said. “Even having ideas presented that are promising practices working in other cities could also be helpful.”

Given that the members’ views are largely progressive, their personal politics could make their research vulnerable to attacks — warranted or not — from opponents trying to discredit their conclusions.

“People will embrace the finding because they embrace the general approach of the think tank, and you’ll have people who will reject the findings because they don’t embrace the general approach of the think tank,” Paine said. “That’s one of the dilemmas for folks who are trying to bring some careful thought and some good data to public policy debates, especially in the present era.”

But St. Pete Forward’s founders say, because city politics are supposed to be at least ostensibly nonpartisan, the party affiliation of someone who is presenting an idea to the mayor or city council on things like a recycling program or arts funding shouldn’t matter.

“Things like this aren’t exactly partisan,” Leiner said. “They’re ideas, they’re options...it’s going to depend a lot on what the city council that’s sitting there at the time is putting forth. What’s their agenda? What programs are they looking at doing? The whole point is that they’re going to have options and they’re going to be researched and thought out, not just, ‘This is a great idea...now how do we put it into place?’”

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