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St. Pete mayoral candidates debate, focus on arts funding

Scott Wagman, a candidate for St. Petersburg mayor, speaks during a forum on the arts at Studio@620 Wednesday night. Six candidates were brought together with representatives of the local creative community for a discussion of arts issues.

LARA CERRI | Times

Scott Wagman, a candidate for St. Petersburg mayor, speaks during a forum on the arts at Studio@620 Wednesday night. Six candidates were brought together with representatives of the local creative community for a discussion of arts issues.

ST. PETERSBURG — The local arts scene was Topic A Wednesday night as the city's candidates for mayor gathered to discuss arts issues at the Studio@620. Here's a snapshot of the night.

Best moment: Candidate Paul Congemi, a 52-year-old advocate for the homeless, walked off the stage after opening remarks. He said he did it on behalf "of the homeless and the hungry." The only problem was that he forgot to say who he was until someone reminded him. Congemi then wandered around the venue for several minutes before finally exiting.

New ideas: Business executive Deveron Gibbons, 36, proposed a sister city arts partnership with Atlanta. City Council member Jamie Bennett, 56, suggested the city name its own poet laureate. Attorney Kathleen Ford, 51, talked about building a jazz district; attorney Bill Foster, 45, suggested specifically the old Manhattan Casino building in Midtown as the location. Former business executive Scott Wagman, 55, suggested something different for the Manhattan Casino: a 100- to 200-stockholder, African-American-run company to operate the building as a restaurant.

One-liner: Ford, on the decision by Mayor Rick Baker to dismiss city arts czar Ann Wykell as part of budget cuts: "When you have 70 city employees making more than $100,000 in the city of St. Petersburg, I think we can find the money to have somebody to manage and coordinate the arts. It's just that important."

More on city arts cuts: Foster, Ford and Bennett said they would not have dismissed Wykell. Businessman Larry Williams, 64, and Gibbons said they don't have all the information to say what they would have done. Wagman came closest to agreeing with Baker, but also said the city should be funding the arts more, not less: "It is not reasonable to have an office charged with giving out $175,000 to arts organizations … with an overhead cost of $175,000." Wagman says the city needs to commit $500,000 to $1 million to the arts. "Then you can afford what Ann brought to the table."

Like old times: When forum organizers said cars were being towed from a private parking lot across the street, Ford said, "That would be the mayor." Ford lost the 2001 mayor's race to Baker.

Shout out: Gibbons, while talking about his ability to connect with local, state and national leaders, said he recently met with Kasim Reed, a leading candidate for mayor of Atlanta.

No shows: Candidates Sharon Russ, a 48-year-old minister, and Alex Haak, a 77-year-old political activist, did not attend.

St. Pete mayoral candidates debate, focus on arts funding 04/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 3:28pm]

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