Intense young men cluster around a video football game at the Childs Park Recreation Center. Others shoot pool. Basketballs thud off a wooden floor in the gym.
Steve Kornell is in his element.
"You don't know how good St. Petersburg has it until you visit a city without a recreation department or good parks department,'' he says.
Kornell worked most of his adult life in city rec centers, including a stint running Childs Park and Shore Acres. He once wrote a grant that still brings in millions of dollars to beef up programs for teens.
His personal impact is reflected in greetings and handshakes that swirl around him on a recent Childs Park tour.
"Hey man, how are you doing?'' yells 22-year-old Dexter Drayton, passing through the rec center.
"Steve is the best guy ever,'' Drayton says. "He's good with kids. He respects everybody. It was more fun when he was here.''
Part-time staffer Josh Gillon recalls that he was 7 when he first met Kornell, then a counselor at an afterschool program the city ran at Rio Vista Elementary.
"He was a great mentor,'' Gillon says. "He told me, 'You are a good person. You can do whatever you want.' ''
Now 23, Gillon still aspires to a long-shot tryout with a professional basketball or football team. But he remembers that Kornell pushed him to further his eduction.
He nudges Kornell in the shoulder and smiles. "I'm starting barber college on Monday.''
Kornell graduated from Gibbs High School in 1984. He took classes intermittently at St. Petersburg Junior College while working at rec centers, moving around as he moved up the ranks: Gladden Park, Wildwood, Enoch Davis, Fossil Park, Northwest.
Beginning in 1993, he eared a bachelor's degree in human development at Eckerd College and a master's in social work at the University of South Florida, all while continuing to work full time.
"It took me a while to figure out how to do things in my life,'' he says. "But once I figured it out, I went out and did it.''
Now, he's a social worker at Lakewood and Boca Ciega high schools, counseling abused and troubled kids.
"Steve is one of my favorite people,'' says Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner, who met Kornell more than a decade ago when they served together on a Juvenile Welfare Board committee.
"He's intelligent and hard working and has very good people and communication skills. He will listen to the other person. And he's been involved with this community since he was young.''
Kornell's campaign is one of the best organized she has seen in Pinellas County, Lerner said. He started early, studied the issues and lined up dozens of volunteers. He nearly won the three-way Sept. 1 primary outright with 48.7 percent of the vote to Rouson's 32 percent.
If elected, he would make history as St. Petersburg's first openly gay council member.
Kornell says he has previously had a long-term relationship but now is single. Though he'll answer personal questions forthrightly, he prefers to discuss issues.
He suggests that St. Petersburg should use Penny for Pinellas money to install solar panels on city buildings, then try to attract a manufacturer who would employ residents to build those panels.
He would fight crime by beefing up the police force, if necessary. But he also thinks a safer St. Petersburg begins in places like the Childs Park rec center.
The city should keep kids out of trouble in the first place by investing in early literacy and school readiness, he says.
"We need a well-thought-out, long-term plan to reduce break-ins and car thefts in the future, as well as preventing those that are occurring right now.''