Frontrunner mayoral candidates Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker skipped exchanging jabs over St. Pete’s sewage problems (for once in this debate season) during Wednesday night’s mayoral debate at the Museum of Fine Arts. Instead, in a much tamer-than-usual debate, they spoke about their plans for supporting the local arts community, preserving the city’s historic buildings and improving its neighborhoods.
“Candidates, we respectfully request you to take advantage of this opportunity to avoid the temptation of wading into the sewage treatment plants in tonight’s debate,” said moderator Dr. Gary Mormino, Florida studies professor emeritus at USF St. Petersburg.
The debate, hosted by the St. Petersburg Preservation, drew a crowd of about 150 people, many of them St Petersburg Preservation members and others involved in the local arts community.
Hot topics of the debate included funding for local arts and designating and renovating historic city buildings.
Baker touted using the “bully pulpit” as mayor to get encourage historic preservation of local buildings and neighborhoods; that he helped get dilapidated Midtown buildings like the Manhattan Casino and Mercy Hospital renovated.
“We take credit for all the arts but we need to also support it as well. There is nothing like the bully pulpit advocacy of the mayor’s office. You (the mayor) become the chief bully pulpit for the arts community in the city. I believe that’s what I did and that’s why I had such great progress across the board in the arts when I was mayor,” Baker said.
He said he may use that tactic to get the downtown block that houses music venue Jannus Live and the old Detroit Hotel — the "First Block" designated as a historic property so that it can't be bulldozed and replaced with another condo tower.
“I think that that is a critical, critical block in our city. If you were to walk around downtown, what will soon become very evident to you is that the Jannus Landing block is the beating heart of the entire downtown St. Pete,” Baker said. “I believe it should be designated. When I am mayor, I will seek to have it designated again. I will advocate for it and try to preserve that block.”
Baker also took the opportunity to brag about the arts development projects he undertook as former mayor, including moving the Dali Museum to its current location.
“While I was mayor, I focused on trying to make our statement that we’re the cultural center of Florida to be true. And so we worked to bring the Dali Museum to the port of downtown, which was a humongous effort, and we worked with Dale Chihuly (to bring his permanent collection here),” Baker said.
To ensure funding for local arts, Kriseman floated the idea of establishing a million-dollar endowment.
“In fact, once we had the settlement with BP (as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill) and received some of those funds, my recommendation to city council was that we use a million of those dollars to create an arts endowment to at least get that kicked off. Because we really need to have an arts endowment here in St. Petersburg so we can really help ensure there’s a steady stream of funding, even in the downturns of the economy,” Kriseman said.
He also talked about future renovations for the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum, which the city bought in 2015. He said he plans to bring architects into the Woodson Museum after October to redesign its interior so it works better as a museum.
Rising rents and chain stores on Central Avenue and Beach Drive also got some attention. Both downtown streets, especially Central Avenue, have seen a steady stream of small local businesses ditching their storefronts and moving elsewhere in the city or totally closing down, because their rents were raised. The changes are increasingly uprooting the artsy vibe that brought visitors to the downtown area in the first place.
Kriseman admitted that he doesn’t have much of a plan right now to tackle the issue but that he plans to hold forums with the local business and arts communities’ members to get their input.
“What we have to be so careful about is that we don’t become an Atlanta or a Boston or any other city like that where you walk down the central avenue and you don’t know you’re in St. Pete...because the stores are all the same, the restaurants are all the same,” Kriseman said. “On Central Avenue and more particular, on Beach Drive, we want to look at those corridors and decide ‘do we want to allow formula businesses (chains)’ and if not, how do we limit them. How do we respect the right of the property owner but at the same time, try and maintain that character that makes it special.”
On improving neighborhoods and housing, Kriseman pointed to his administration’s efforts to renovate or rebuild blighted homes with nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and put them back on the market as affordable housing. He’s also looking to create more opportunities with developers for housing at below market rates.