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Poll shows St. Petersburg divided over BayWalk, undecided over City Council races

ST. PETERSBURG — It's not just the two guys throwing punches at City Hall on Thursday. A new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll showed that the city as a whole is sharply divided over the BayWalk sidewalk deal.

No other issue showed as sharp a split.

Forty-six percent of voters approved of the City Council's decision to give BayWalk owners the public sidewalk in front of the ailing downtown entertainment complex. Forty-four percent opposed the move, according to the poll of 608 registered St. Petersburg voters who said they definitely planned to vote in the Nov. 3 election.

The poll, conducted Oct. 13-15 by Communications Center Inc. of Lakeland, had a 4-percentage point margin of error.

"I believe that the property shouldn't be set as private," said resident David Cabey, 45. "It should be public … and for them to make it a private piece of property to stop people from protesting, it's not the right way to go about it. It won't help."

Thursday's melee between opposing factions broke out in council chambers just after the 5-3 vote for privatization.

The new owners had promised to invest $6 million into BayWalk, but said they couldn't attract new tenants without the ability to remove protesters.

The poll found that 59 percent of voters think privatizing the sidewalk will help business at BayWalk. Roughly 33 percent said ceding the sidewalk won't help the complex, which is 70 percent vacant.

There was widespread agreement about other important issues in the Nov. 3 general election, where voters will select a new mayor and five City Council members.

Economic development was important to 97 percent of voters. Taxes was a big issue for 95 percent of voters, and the twin issues of homelessness and panhandling were key to 89 percent of those polled.

According to the survey, 60 percent of respondents said a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays is important in how they will vote, while 39 percent said it wasn't an important issue.

Former New York City police Officer John Beggins, 48, said he lived with the old Shea and Yankee stadiums and he can live with Tropicana Field, too.

"There's nothing wrong with the Trop, and I'd go anytime to see a game," he said. "There's nothing wrong with it, and I told (Rays owner Stuart) Sternberg that myself."

Fifty-nine percent of voters think departing Mayor Rick Baker has done an excellent or good job and that the city is heading in the right direction.

Conversely, 14 percent of voters gave him a not so good or poor job approval rating, and 24 percent think the city is on the wrong track.

When asked whether the new mayor — either Kathleen Ford or Bill Foster — should keep police Chief Chuck Harmon, 44 percent wanted to retain the chief. Eighteen percent said the new mayor should replace him, and 35 percent didn't know.

On crime, 99 percent of respondents said they were very or somewhat concerned about crime. However, those same voters also said they feel safe in the city.

In the race for the five City Council seats up for grabs, the poll shows that voters are still largely undecided.

Candidates said they're fighting the mayoral race, the BayWalk vote and the baseball stadium for attention. But Steve Corsetti, who is running against incumbent Jim Kennedy in District 2, blamed another culprit: the media.

"The BayWalk issue of course got a lot of attention and deservedly so," said Corsetti, a retired law enforcement officer. "But as far as any of the non-incumbents on the City Council, there has been absolutely no (coverage.)"

In that race, the poll showed 58 percent of voters were undecided, with Kennedy and Corsetti in a statistical tie, with 21 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

Vel Thompson, who is running against Karl Nurse for District 6, said she doesn't think it is apathy. Rather, voters just haven't made up their minds yet: "I think people are really paying attention to the candidates, and wanting to make the right decisions."

In that race, undecided voters account for 51 percent, followed by Nurse with 33 percent and Thompson with 14 percent.

In District 8, 65 percent of voters were undecided, followed by incumbent Jeff Danner with 24 percent and challenger Leonard Schmiege at 8 percent.

District 4 council member Leslie Curran is leading challenger Pamella Settlegoode, with 34 percent to Settlegoode's 14. Forty-seven percent say they haven't made up their minds.

The only race without an incumbent, District 5, is going to be close.

Pinellas County schools social worker Steve Kornell has a slight lead over Angela Rouson, a Pinellas County Housing Authority member. Fifty percent of the voters say they're undecided, followed by 24 percent for Kornell and 22 percent for Rouson.

Nurse, who was appointed to the City Council in 2008, faces his first election in the majority black district.

He blamed all the indecision on the way the city elects its council.

In the primary, residents are allowed to vote only for the race in their district. But in the general election, the races become citywide.

"You spend months campaigning in your district," he said, "and then six weeks campaigning citywide.

"It's not shocking that you start off with an awful lot of undecideds. But it also tells me you don't stop working until you close the polls."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Poll shows St. Petersburg divided over BayWalk, undecided over City Council races 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 11:50pm]
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