Thursday, September 20, 2018
News Roundup

Guarding St. Petersburg's cool factor is good policy, says Mayor Rick Kriseman, not playing politics

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman is trying to find the sweet spot between preserving the funky vibe of Central Avenue and chic charm of Beach Drive while respecting the lucrative property rights of the owners of those sizzling stretches of downtown real estate.

It is not an easy balance to find.

An early foray was the mayor's announcement May 3 of an "Independent Corridor" plan that would protect small local businesses from being priced out by chains large and small. By the mayor's own admission, that idea received some raspberries amid the applause.

The mayor's evolving plan would make it harder for chains and even owners of multiple stores — so-called "formula businesses" — to set up shops on Central Avenue up to 31st Street and the entire stretch of Beach Drive.

Kriseman broke the news before leading a march of small business owners along Central Avenue in an event that felt more like a campaign rally for a mayor facing re-election than the rollout of a new city policy.

So far, the reception to that "concept" — nothing is in writing and there's no timetable to deliver an ordinance to the council — has been mixed.

"There's some nervousness," Kriseman said days later. "I think some of it is because of the unknown. What is the definition of a formula business? Is Kahwa a formula? Well, we're not sure yet."

While the mayor fears turning Central Avenue or Beach Drive into a mini-U.S. 19 of chain restaurants, there are other ways such a policy could backfire. Would it prevent Publix from opening a third supermarket on Central? Or would it bar homegrown chain Kahwa from expanding its downtown coffee shop empire to Beach Drive?

St. Petersburg isn't the only city considering this type of approach to protecting local businesses. Gulfport City Council member Yolanda Roman is pushing her city to adopt a similar plan.

Kriseman's spokesman, Ben Kirby, said the plan is still being tweaked. Originally, two downtown eateries, Cider Press Cafe and Hyppo, the craft popsicle shop, were described as formula businesses that Kirby said would be grandfathered in under the plan.

Now, they may no longer even be considered formula businesses, Kirby said.

Overall, Kriseman said, he's heard more positive feedback than negative.

The idea is to require a chain or formula business to get a variance, probably through the city's Development Review Commission, with the right to appeal a rejection to the City Council.

But even that's still in flux, the mayor said, although he's fairly confident hotels and banks will be exempted.

But with so many details still up in the air, why not wait to go public? Did it have anything to do with November's election? Or the fact that the mayor announced his plan the day after his political rival made headlines?

Former mayor Rick Baker was the public face of the Tampa Bay Rowdies' referendum to redevelop Al Lang Stadium. Voters overwhelmingly approved the referendum May 2. Baker then filed to run against Kriseman on Monday.

Politics played no role in the timing, Kriseman said.

"This is not a safe thing for me to do," Kriseman said, "but I think it's the right thing for me to do."

There are many small local business owners, especially along Central Avenue, that have felt the squeeze of downtown's success in the form of rising rents. They applauded Kriseman's initiative. And the mayor's desire to see chains operate on corridors that need activity (like Dr. Martin Luther King Street, 16th Street and First avenues N and S) and conform with the city's smart growth strategy.

At the march, Olga Bof, founder of Keep St. Petersburg Local, an independent business organization, said small businesses need help in the face of rising rents.

"We're at a threshold moment," Bof said.

And the mayor has the support of some business interests.

"We're not trying to say we don't want growth," St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Chris Steinocher said. "We don't want to learn the lessons that Portland has learned, that Austin has learned, that Nashville is learning, that Atlanta has learned.

"Let's not screw this up."

The mayor said tourism officials have told him the local flavor of St. Petersburg has helped attract more visitors, so the city has studied ordinances in San Francisco, Boston and other cities in an attempt to find something that works.

San Francisco has had mixed results with some evidence that proposals to keep chains out led to an influx of high-end boutiques and restaurants that helped fuel gentrification.

How can St. Petersburg avoid that fate?

"I don't know if I have the answer to that yet," Kriseman said. "That's a concern that a lot of small businesses have right now. That's part of the reason we're trying to do something."

But, he added, property owners also have the right to profit from their real estate investments: "So it's trying to see if we can't figure out where's that balance, where's that sweet spot."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]

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