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Restaurant owner says he's right choice for St. Pete mayor

ST. PETERSBURG — As the field of mayoral candidates came into focus in recent months, restaurateur John Warren sized up the group and thought to himself, meh.

The candidates had months of campaigning and fundraising on him, some had been elected to office in St. Petersburg before, some were high-powered corporate types. But with more than 30 years under his belt as a community activist and small business owner in St. Petersburg, Warren felt comfortable he would make the best mayor of the lot.

"I wouldn't have joined the race if I didn't think I was," Warren said.

Warren, a self-made businessman with a background in historic preservation, makes 10 candidates now vying to replace Mayor Rick Baker, who is term-limited.

He is the owner of the popular Savannah's Cafe on Central Avenue and the former president of St. Petersburg Preservation and the St. Petersburg Historical Society. He sums up his resume with a self-appointed title: "community investor."

But for all his bravado, Warren sometimes comes across as somewhat unprepared.

His tenderfoot campaign has yet to establish a slogan, base or so much as a Facebook page. He is quick to point out St. Petersburg's troubles, but can be short on solutions. During his first appearance at a mayoral forum Tuesday, he spent nearly as much time agreeing with his opponent's ideas as he did professing his own views.

"It is obvious that I have a lot to learn," Warren said during his closing statement.

His late entry into the race has afforded him less time to brainstorm, he acknowledged.

Friends, however, describe Warren as a thoughtful, smart leader whose dedication to St. Petersburg has helped shape the city.

Warren played a role in founding the area's growing arts community. He designed the city's largest gallery, Salt Creek Artworks on Fourth Street S, years before city leaders established economic development in south St. Petersburg as a priority.

"He's a trailblazer that way," said artist Herb Snitzer.

As the founding president of St. Petersburg Preservation, Warren wrestled with city leaders over the future of Jannus Landing and the Detroit Hotel, leading the effort to clean up the 200 block of Central Avenue. He also purchased and restored several nearby properties.

"John was very much an idea person, a go-getter in terms of analyzing the problem and finding a way to solve it," said Lynn Homan, a longtime friend and former preservation society member.

As mayor, Warren said community planning would be his top priority.

He said he would sponsor an independent study of the Police Department's crime statistics and management. Police Chief Chuck Harmon's job security would hinge on the findings of that report, Warren said.

To crack down on panhandlers, he said he would allow businesses greater control over the sidewalks in front of their businesses, so they could ban trespassers. He said he wasn't sure how he would specifically implement that effort.

On baseball, he said he would allow a voter referendum on any significant changes to the Tampa Bay Rays' Tropicana Field lease with the city. Ideally, the Rays will stay in Tropicana Field, he said.

It's unclear if Warren still has time to win over voters.

Snitzer himself warned Warren he would be "just another white guy" if he entered the race.

Warren remains optimistic.

With more than 60 percent of voters still undecided, the race is just getting started, he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or

>>Fast facts

John Warren

59, owner of Savannah's Cafe, real estate investor.

Education: some college education.

Family: Married with two children.

About the
mayor's race

Key dates: Absentee ballots go out July 13. The primary is Sept. 1. The St. Petersburg general election is Nov. 3.

On the Web: For more about the candidates, go to

Restaurant owner says he's right choice for St. Pete mayor 07/01/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 3:43pm]
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