ST. PETERSBURG — After all the meetings, votes and outcry surrounding the privatization of a sidewalk fronting BayWalk, a question lingers:
When will the city actually give it up?
Answer: probably in December.
There's some red tape BayWalk managers have to cut through between now and then to meet city ordinances — easement documents, rights of way, delineations drawn up by architects.
"Just a couple of items have to fall into place," said property manager Tom McGeachy.
When the switch happens, BayWalk owners will control the sidewalk, a move designed to boost business at the suffering shopping center. The sidewalk has long been a hot spot for protesters and loiterers who, some believe, ran off customers.
The American Civil Liberties Union is not taking any legal action while the sidewalk remains public.
"We're not pleased with the anti-free-speech decision that was made," said Glenn Katon, a senior attorney with the ACLU Florida. "At this point, all we're really doing is waiting to see how it plays out, what changes they make."
Last week, 75 protesters from St. Pete for Peace and the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement lined the sidewalk, decrying the highly contentious 5-3 vote by St. Petersburg's City Council to vacate the sidewalk. Tensions were high during the Oct. 15 vote — so high that a physical brawl erupted in council chambers. Polls have shown that city residents are pretty evenly split on the issue.
BayWalk managers are reaching out to community groups to open dialogue, McGeachy said. They have met with the Boys & Girls Club, TASCO and students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg College, as well as business and civic associations, he said. They are working to set up focus groups with teenagers who go to BayWalk to see how the atmosphere can improve.
"We've really made an effort to reach out to the community, and we continue to do so," he said.
As for protesters?
"We had a little dialogue prior to the vote, and we have not had communication since then but are open, and we do hope to talk to them in the future," he said.
BayWalk installed 16 new surveillance cameras and moved the security office to a more prominent location in the complex's main courtyard about six weeks ago, McGeachy said.
St. Petersburg police officers also have an office in BayWalk and patrol on Segways. There aren't immediate plans for a new substation, but more visible private security is a plus, police said.
"I'm thrilled that they moved their security to a more visible area," said police Maj. Dede Carron. "Instead of having us in a separate location, I think the public would like to see the officers interacting with security."
McGeachy remains hopeful that BayWalk, which is about 70 percent vacant, will find what ultimately will determine its success.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.