ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Baker has a long list of goals he wants to accomplish during his last year in office.
Some are simple. Build more playgrounds. Plant more trees. Expand city trails.
Others are much more ambitious.
Undeterred by the slumping economy and the political chaos of an election year, Baker said he intends to fulfill his promise to bring a bank to Midtown, begin construction on the long-stalled Grand Bohemian Hotel downtown and save BayWalk, which recently fell into foreclosure.
"I don't intend to slow down," Baker said. "I intend to rush full speed to the finish line."
Distracting chatter about his post-mayoral career has been banned. City administrators have been warned not to slack off, and community investors who control the fate of Baker's pending economic development projects are being wooed and prodded to play along.
But political observers are quick to point out that the last of Baker's eight years at the helm could be his most challenging.
Many of the mayor's most high-profile projects are at the mercy of an unpredictable economy, including new business centers for high-tech giants Jabil Circuit, Draper Laboratory and SRI International, all of which tentatively are slated to break ground or celebrate grand openings in 2009.
"The economy doesn't make things easier, but it doesn't make things impossible," Baker said. "To try to do all of those things is tricky, but I think we are going to be able to do it."
Community leaders, however, aren't as sure. Some say Baker has set near impossible goals.
"The world of finance is so difficult, I just don't think you are going to see a lot of new groundbreakings in the next year," said Craig Sher, the executive chairman of Sembler and a Baker ally.
Dropping property values and the growing foreclosure crisis also could cut into Baker's time.
The mayor and council could face a deficit when they begin work on the 2010 budget this spring. City officials say it's too early to know whether drastic cuts will be needed, but county leaders fear the worst.
"The property values are going to go down, and we are going to be out of more money," said County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris. "When that happens, there are a lot of nice to-do things that citizens are asking for that we aren't going to be able to do."
Federal, state and county funding will be in short supply, and at a least one council member thinks that could get in way of Baker's goals.
"The greatest challenge is he's going to have less money to use to address any of these issues," said council member Karl Nurse.
While Baker won't talk publicly about what his political future could hold, politics are still likely to be a factor in what he's able to get done this coming year.
The city election, where the mayor's chair and up to five council seats are up for grabs, could cause unwanted distractions or stir up friction among those running for re-election.
"Anyone that is trying to be mayor is definitely going to push back," said council member Wengay Newton. "Anyone that is up for re-election is going to push back. They have to demonstrate now that they aren't puppets, that they are fighters."
Crime is likely to be an issue during the election.
Already, a majority of council members say they are fed up with the administration's "things are getting better" line and are demanding a tougher approach to public safety.
"I don't care what the numbers say," said council member Bill Dudley. "We don't live in numbers. We live in reality. People need to feel safe."
Violent crime is down 12 percent citywide compared to 2007, but economic crimes such as burglary, robbery and larceny are up, in most categories by nearly 14 percent.
No crime is tolerable, said Baker, but he doesn't think the statistics are bleak.
"The discussions we've had is to carry on what his platform has been during his first eight years in office," said police Chief Charles "Chuck" Harmon. "We're planning on doing that and keeping this the safest city that we possibly can."
Harmon said the city is considering creating a new special crimes unit and will expand its neighborhood outreach efforts.
Focused on goals
By all accounts, Baker is months away from the dreaded lame duck brushoff. St. Petersburg is a strong-mayor government, and Baker's influence among his high-powered friends isn't likely to wane.
"I don't think anybody is going to say na-na-na you're gone and we don't have to listen to you," said council member Herb Polson.
Baker wants to delay those conversations as long as possible.
"Everyone wants to talk about what are you going to do next," he said. "I don't want to talk about that. I want to focus on this."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]