One hundred years ago this December, the little city and its waterfront were at a crossroads. ¶ Amid a growing marina with rickety docks, stevedores and fish processing plants on the edge of downtown, a railroad pier extended onto what is now Demens Landing. And dredging the harbor for bigger boats was under way. ¶ There was also an awareness that the sunny city could one day become a major tourist destination. A popular bathing pavilion beside the pier was already drawing crowds.
The debate about whether to develop the waterfront for commerce or parkland had been a divisive issue in the 1906 City Council elections. Among the enthusiasts pushing for public parks was W. L. Straub, the editor of the St. Petersburg Times. Straub's editorials led the way for the creation of what is now a continuous belt of mostly green, public space from Albert Whitted Airport to Coffee Pot Bayou.
Today, St. Petersburg is counted among much bigger cities such as Chicago as having the nation's largest waterfronts.
"St. Petersburg had an opportunity to do this from the start," said historian Ray Arsenault, whose St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream documents how Straub and others championed a public waterfront. "It's really an amazing story of how these were forward looking people, in a humanistic sense."
This month, the city will begin celebrating that heritage with a Waterfront Parks Centennial, a yearlong celebration of festivals, lectures, movies, tours and outdoor events. The roster is at stpeteparks100.org.
Straub's vision continues today, said Mayor Rick Baker, who came here in the 1980s.
"The waterfront parks system is one of the most significant facets that has allowed us to have a downtown renaissance," he said. "It's just a very special place."
Before the harbor was dredged and seawalls were added, the downtown waterfront looked much like Lassing Park in the Old Southeast does now. Most lots were privately owned and acquired by the city one at a time.
"There were no funds, and public-spirited citizens came to the rescue with their personal credit — as was often done in those early days when the city needed something it could not at that time pay for," Straub wrote in his 1929 book History of Pinellas County Florida.
By 1925, the tab for creating the parks neared $2 million.
"It was very small town in a lot of ways, so it was a very large investment for a community to make," said Peter Belmont, vice president of St. Petersburg Preservation, which is planning the centennial.
As a compromise with those who wanted commerce, deeper channels were dredged in what is now Bayboro Harbor. But the Port of Tampa was already thriving, and St. Petersburg's waterfront was assured a quaint future, Arsenault said.
"St. Petersburg's uniqueness and its sense of place are all connected to that public waterfront," Arsenault said.
The centennial celebration relies on the support of individuals and businesses. To donate, visit the Web site or send tax-deductible contributions to SPP Centennial Celebration Fund, 200 Second Ave. S, No. 100, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.
Luis Perez can be reached at email@example.com or (727)892-2271.