St. Petersburg City Council votes not to privatize Baywalk entryway

The city of St. Petersburg's controversial dispute over whether to privatize a sidewalk in front of downtown's popular entertainment complex, Baywalk, was decided today after a surprise tied vote by city council.

The 4- 4 vote was a change from the preliminary 7-1 vote that was cast to put the issue before two public hearings, with Wengay Newton being the lone dissenter. At the second public hearing today, council members Leslie Curran, Herbert Polson, and Jim Kennedy joined Newton's dissent, keeping the sidewalk open for public use.

The possibility of making the sidewalk at Second Ave. North between First and Second St., a popular spot for protesters, panhandlers and youth, into a private walkway owned by Baywalk caused a dispute over what some considered a violation of First Amendment rights.

For more than five hours, the council listened to 72 residents, business owners and members of civilian groups speak, trying to influence the decision of the council members.

Men and women of varying ages and races argued for freedom of speech, for the protection of business owners, for the importance of Baywalk to the downtown community, and for accepting that privatizing the sidewalk was not going to necessarily save Baywalk. There must be a better option, they said.

They said the youth and the protesters were scaring people away; that privatizing the sidewalk would set a terrible precedent; that the diversity of St. Petersburg is why its residents value the city, and they don't want it homogenized; that protesters were free to demonstrate elsewhere so their freedom of speech and assembly rights were not being impeded upon; that Baywalk would fail if the sidewalk were not privatized because new businesses wouldn't sign on to the already sinking ship. There was a clear and seemingly even split in opinions among the community members.

Attorneys and members of the ACLU called the privatization unconstitutional, saying sidewalks are a public forum and therefore free speech zones. They cited the general economy and poor management as the main cause of the disintegration of Baywalk's once thriving commerce.

Residents representing the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, and the St. Petersburg Downtown Business Association said privatizing the sidewalk would be good for business. They said people would come back to Baywalk if they could feel safe there again; if they didn't have to be made to feel intimidated by panhandlers, protesters or teenagers.

Some came to say the real issue was racism, as the sidewalk is a popular place for black youth. Others argued for more creative options that would allow the sidewalk to remain a public forum while rejuvenating the struggling complex.

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