ST. PETERSBURG — For months, residents have been waiting for a big move from Bill Edwards, the mortgage magnate who bought BayWalk with promises of restored grandeur and won the contract to manage the city-owned Mahaffey Theater.
On Thursday, Edwards announced the addition of a political heavyweight to his company's team.
Former Mayor Rick Baker will leave his $250,000 a year job as vice president of economic development at the University of South Florida later this month to become president of the Edwards Group.
The decision was difficult, Baker said.
"I love USF. It's not like I was looking to go somewhere," he said. "This gets me back into the business world."
Along with taking charge of the Mahaffey and the newly named Shops at St. Pete, formerly called BayWalk, Baker will manage Edwards' other holdings. Those include his Club at Treasure Island and hotels, entertainment venues and commercial real estate.
Edwards said he targeted Baker because of the way the city grew with Baker at its helm from 2001 to 2010. "I need people who have leadership capabilities," Edwards said.
In recent months, rumors have spread that Baker might run for mayor again next year. Not anymore. "I have no plans to run for office at this time," Baker said Thursday.
Baker essentially could serve as a well-connected lobbyist for Edwards, supremely equipped to work the bureaucracy and levels of power at City Hall and in the business world.
Such a role would not be new to Baker.
During the 1990s, he served as a top adviser to former Mayor David Fischer and frequently appeared before the council when philanthropist John Galbraith sought millions of dollars for the struggling Florida International Museum.
Buzz ran through City Hall on Thursday after Baker and Edwards announced the move.
Mayor Bill Foster called Baker a "deal maker" well qualified to manage Edwards' empire.
Baker managed a city with 2,700 employees for eight years, Foster said, so he has the needed experience.
Rick Kriseman, a former council member and state legislator, said Baker's new position will help him further the renaissance he started as mayor. It could give him more control over the city's future.
"This is a smart move," Kriseman said. "He loves his community."
Council Chair Leslie Curran called it a "great marriage" given Baker's ties to area business leaders, a view shared by many of the city's movers-and-shakers.
"The way Straub and Poynter did things back in the day, I think Edwards and Baker are names we are going to look back on for years to come," said Chris Steinocher, head of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
Many pointed to the city's progress under Baker. However, BayWalk opened as bustling retail hub the year before he took office. By the time Baker left office, the downtown complex was desolate and decaying.
"It is ironic," Steinocher said. "You always want a second chance, and you learn a lot of lessons and think about how to do things differently."
As mayor, Baker wasn't in charge of operations at BayWalk. But he did have influence over issues such as security after the complex mushroomed into a teen hangout and became a focal point for antiwar demonstrators.
Toward the end of his term, Baker led the push to cede the public sidewalk to the retail complex's owners to rid BayWalk of protesters and loitering teens. The council's approval was one of the most controversial votes in recent history. Yet BayWalk remained empty and the owners' promise of millions in renovations if given the sidewalk never materialized.
After the complex fell into foreclosure, Edwards bought it last year for $5.2 million. He renamed it and gave it a quick face lift while waiting to start major renovations next year.
He said he expects to spend $30 million on renovations.
Yet there are some echoes of delayed progress.
Earlier this year, Edwards said a lineup of new tenants would be released in April.
That didn't happen.
During a late September council meeting, a company representative said anchor restaurants with national acclaim would be announced in 30 to 60 days. Still no official word.
Edwards said that all is good and attributed some of the delays to changing architects to the local firm of Harvard Jolly Architecture. He decided he preferred a local company instead of his former architecture firm, API, with offices in Tampa and Miami.
Adding Baker helps boost his credibility as deadlines come and go.
"Bill Edwards is basically going to monetize all the relationships Rick Baker has made over the years," said Paula Clair Smith, retail real estate broker with Commercial Asset Partners. "It reinforces Bill's commitment to St. Petersburg."
Baker and Edwards have been allies for almost a decade. The former mayor was a strong proponent of Edwards in 2004 when he first made a bid to manage Mahaffey. He nearly won the job but walked away after questions arose about an overseas marijuana conviction that was later overturned. Edwards still donated $2 million to the theater.
Edwards also made one of the biggest donations to the Tampa Bay Host Committee for the Republican National Convention and paid $600,000 to build a city welcome sign on Interstate 275.
Edwards said he eventually plans to develop more projects in the city but declined to reveal details.
"I'll now have Rick to steer the ship," he said. "The Edwards Group has a short bench."
While in office, Baker spearheaded efforts to revitalize the Midtown area, the city's poorest region. Baker lauded Edwards for supporting those efforts, which included donating sound and recording equipment to the Royal Theater.
Goliath Davis, a former police chief and top administrator under Baker, is one of the leading voices in the Midtown area. He believes the new partnership will help improve St. Petersburg.
Council member Wengay Newton agreed:
"Mr. Baker has a lot of vision. Mr. Edwards has the capital."