ST. PETERSBURG — Rick Kriseman has sensed for a while that the wounds from last year’s bruising race for mayor had healed and a community divided had regained the disposition of the Sunshine City.
Now, the two-term mayor says, he has the numbers to prove it.
More than six in 10 St. Petersburg voters said the city is headed in the right direction, according to a poll of 350 registered voters that Kriseman commissioned earlier this month. Just 14 percent say it’s not.
A year ago, how St. Petersburg residents felt about the city may have depended on who they supported for mayor. In challenging Kriseman, former mayor Rick Baker tried to make the case that the city could be doing better. He pointed to the sewage problem, a stagnant Midtown and an expensive pier project as evidence that St. Petersburg needed new management.
Some have suggested that Baker ultimately lost because his version of St. Pete didn’t match reality for most people. While the concerns are legitimate, the city also has a vibrant and flourishing downtown surrounded by a mix of quirky, hip and posh neighborhoods and business districts. People are moving here in droves and housing prices are up. In short, it’s a place many people want to live.
“You can walk around town and get a sense of energy and feeling, but there’s always a part of you when you’re in this job that wonders when they say, ‘I love what’s going on with the city,’ are they just being nice?” Kriseman said. “This is a way of really confirming that. It does appear to be the sentiment of the public.”
However, the numbers are lower among African American residents, many of whom live in parts of the city that haven’t experienced the same revitalization as other parts of St. Petersburg. It’s a sentiment Baker tried to capitalize during the campaign.
Kriseman said it will take time for a community wronged for decades by decisions in city hall to feel like its leaders are looking out for them.
The internal poll, provided to the Tampa Bay Times, showed 20 percent of those surveyed said Kriseman is doing an excellent job, and 50 percent rated him “good.” The city council received similar marks. The margin of the error in the poll, conducted by SEA Polling and Strategic Design, was 5.2 percent.
With less than 1,000 days left in his second term, the poll, paid for by his political action committee, was also meant to gauge how residents felt the mayor should focus the rest of his time in office. No surprise: affordable housing and transportation were at the top of many minds.
Four in 10 said lack of affordable housing was the first or second most important problem for Kriseman to take up. Meanwhile 31 percent rated “traffic and congestion” a top two issue and 20 percent said “lack of mass transit options.”
Nearly 70 percent of residents also said they approve of the city’s so-called “complete streets" that have dedicated bicycle lanes and pedestrian crossings. This would seem to suggest that the complaints about the recent changes to Martin Luther King Jr. Street aren’t shared by most residents.
Kriseman said he hopes to unveil an affordable housing plan in the coming weeks. Here’s what he won’t do: force affordable housing in the city’s downtown. Rather, he would prefer to build housing for low and middle income residents around downtown. In particular, he mentioned the Tropicana Field site as an opportunity for the city to dictate housing policies on its own property.
“Your downtowns, in most successful thriving downtowns, are not going to be a place with a vast amount of affordable housing,” Kriseman said. “They’re desirable, land cost goes up, it makes it more expensive and it forces the price up. Downtowns that are affordable are places people typically don’t want to live.”
Speaking of the Trop, here’s one thing residents don’t want Kriseman to spend his time on: making sure the Tampa Bay Rays stay in St. Pete. Just 10 percent of residents made that their first or second priority.