I went to Johnny Rockets at BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg and got a chili dog. This was a fine use of time. It came with good diner fries, too. I passed up the milkshake until next time. You gotta draw the line somewhere.
BayWalk is as charming to me as it ever was, especially on a mild, sunny afternoon, sitting on a bench in post-chili-dog contemplation.
The courtyard is ringed with stores — not my kind of store in particular, but then, they never were, except for Ben & Jerry's. You can buy sunglasses and sandals, video games or arty home furnishings. There's an Ann Taylor out front, and a store that sells only black and white.
Only when you look a little closer do you see omens. There are vacant windows and "For Lease" signs. The front corner storefront upstairs is boarded over with plywood. I had my chili dog in solitude, while a half-dozen or so map-wielding weekday tourists wandered by.
BayWalk is in trouble. The new owner has failed to get the mortgage reworked and is in court. Many past tenants are gone; other leases are coming up. Even the main attraction, Muvico 20, is grumbling about leaving.
This is too bad for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that St. Petersburg owes BayWalk for a lot of what has happened to its revitalized downtown over the past few years. BayWalk succeeded where older, grander ideas (Bay Plaza!) failed.
People have a lot of theories. In the first place, it's not like retailers everywhere aren't struggling. St. Petersburg is in for a tough period of dog-eat-dog in the blocks leading down to the waterfront.
On top of that, BayWalk has had its special problems. I used to think BayWalk had things figured out better than its Tampa look-alike, Centro Ybor. Now it's not so clear.
Centro Ybor was a family destination plopped down in the middle of a weekend-night madhouse, where thousands of bar-hopping Gen-X-ers roamed the closed-off streets. Talk about an identity problem.
By virtue of its success, BayWalk, too, became a scene for kids, then a target for protestors of all variety, and in the end was perceived as a little dangerous. I was dissuaded by crowds of raucous kids on weekend nights long before unfortunate and isolated episodes of nearby gunplay in out-of-control crowds. You do not need many instances of the word "gunplay" to get people worried.
I hear different answers and do not know the right one. It seems incredible that the entire southern quadrant of an urban county cannot support a movie theater, yet sales there are down and up everywhere else. Some have the idea that the retail mix isn't right, that it should be either clearly more high-end retail, or low-end entertainment.
I've heard people voice distaste with the whole experience, negotiating the parking garage, which can be vaguely creepy at night, then running the gamut of panhandlers, amateur musicians and everything else between the garage and Second Avenue.
Maybe BayWalk is past its time and the downtown no longer needs it. But I don't think so. On the national level these days, we eagerly declare institutions Too Big to Fail. BayWalk poses the question of what role the city's political and commercial leaders should play, beyond passively letting the private parties decide a big part of their downtown's future in court.