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What challenges does downtown St. Petersburg face?

ST. PETERSBURG — Horse-drawn carriages trot alongside million-dollar homes. A historic hotel houses a rundown convenience store. Homeless men and women sleep in the shadows of City Hall.

Downtown St. Petersburg is a microcosm of urban life, celebrated by city planners and the hometown denizens who remember a not-too-distant past marked by vacant buildings and crumbling structures.

The boarded windows were long ago replaced by shining glass towers and trendy restaurants hawking fusion cuisine. These days, there are more than 7,000 residences downtown, up nearly 2,000 from nine years ago.

But St. Petersburg's bustling hub is not without its problems. Panhandlers increasingly interrupt diners enjoying an outdoor meal. BayWalk, once heralded as the catalyst of downtown's new life, was foreclosed upon and sits half empty. Residents have turned a cold shoulder toward the outdated, struggling Pier. Vacant office space is at a 10-year high.

On the eve of a new mayoral administration, we asked six community leaders and downtown stalwarts two questions: What is the biggest challenge facing downtown and what is the solution?

What downtown leaders say

Marilyn Olsen, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association

Challenge: Lack of civility. Our most pressing problems cannot be solved until we all listen to those with whom we disagree.

Solution: Search for common ground and solve the problems you can. Build on the strength of that relationship. We live in paradise. Smile.

Doug Illman, owner of Push nightclub

Challenge: We are going to need a leader with vision.

Solution: Downtown is the heart of the community and you've got to develop it so that national chains will want to build their retail or restaurants downtown. It can't be Ybor. It can't be all clubs and bars. You've got to have art, you've got to have retail, you've got to have restaurants and you've got to have residential close enough to support it. You have to have balance. This has to be a place where people can come with their families. They should convert Central Avenue from the Yacht Club to Eighth Street into a pedestrian mall.

Mark Johnson, founder of Saturday Morning Market

Challenge: The biggest opportunity is not about what's wrong, but what could be more right? That is, I think what makes downtown work is the sense of a bustling city on a waterfront. The thing people really love is eating in cafes outdoors.

Solution: Don't try to fix the Pier. Invest that energy in dramatically improving the downtown waterfront experience. We need waterfront activities all along the waterfront. In Portland, Ore., there is a fountain that is one of these high-tech fountains that spouts water out and there are colors. They are incredibly engaging. I've seen them in four cities now and they are a magnet for people. Another idea would be to install exercise experiences every 200 yards or so. Another option that is already occurring is improving the walking experience, (like) the redesign of the sidewalks along North Straub Park. You want to have all kinds of things that are connected and a really great walking and biking experience that connects it all. A piece of this would be to seriously explore what to put at Spa Beach and that approach to the Pier, because people frankly are not going to walk out to the Pier. So leave the Pier as a passive experience that doesn't require $50 million on infrastructure and put that experience on the waterfront. Add something to Spa Beach that is Pier-like, cafes, shops.

John Long, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce

Challenge: From our members, the biggest challenge facing downtown is BayWalk. Without a strong BayWalk, it negatively impacts the business environment and excitement that is usually found in downtown St. Petersburg.

Solution: Our executive committee supports the mayor's new BayWalk revitalization plan. They see changes do need to be made and that the various options in the plan gives the new ownership the option to grow Baywalk, and the new design and the streetscaping and the potential new activities in BayWalk will create a refreshing environment. Certainly, you can't have a strong city without a strong downtown and you really need to be able to have, when folks are visiting or when folks want to go shopping or when folks want to go to the movies, they need to know there is a core place to go.

Dan Harvey, downtown real estate investor

Challenge: The biggest challenge is keeping baseball downtown.

Solution: Just knowing a baseball stadium is coming in six or seven years might fill up the condominiums downtown. New development would also keep existing things afloat. Back in the old days, when Bay Plaza was around, the Vinoy wasn't sure what they were going to do, but when they saw baseball coming, that was a catalyst to keep the Vinoy around. The Rays need to see with the redevelopment of a new stadium also comes maybe a train depot, and the development of the Tropicana Field site. Some theaters could go there. People would make investments in hotels and maybe businesses would move downtown, things would happen. So this is about more than just baseball.

Emil Pavone, president of the Downtown Resident Civic Association

Challenge: The biggest challenge facing downtown is the same challenge facing the entire city and that is the lack of a diversified economic base.

Solution: The solution to that problem is to attract diversified businesses and industries to this area. The Downtown Residents Civic Association has recently partnered with the University of South Florida, where there is a center for civic engagement, in which some of the professors have encouraged their students to work with us in developing a plan to actively solicit the movement of businesses, not the kind of low-wage businesses that are the crux and heart of the tourist industry, you know, chamber maids and streets vendors and that kind of thing, no, we want businesses that will have jobs for the graduates of the university who are trained in highly specialized areas that require the great skill that they have learned."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

What the candidates say

Deveron Gibbons, 36, corporate executive

Challenge: Among the biggest challenges to our downtown these days is to make it sustainably livable, with attractions that are financially self-sustaining, retail that's vibrant and meets the needs of its resident population.

Solution: To get there, we must find ways to make the Pier self-sustaining, ensure retail that the downtown is well-promoted and safe, address homelessness, and bring events into the city that support its businesses and enhances quality of life.

Ed Helm, 64, retired lawyer

Challenge: The biggest problem is a weak economy and the economic fears that people are facing.

Solution: We need better leadership on the part of the mayor and city officials. Jobs paying living wages are critical. They would be central to my focus as mayor. The city should encourage and support small business development, but too many small businesses complain that they do not get cooperation from city officials. Every citizen needs to feel supported and that their taxpayer dollars are being well spent.

John Warren, 60, restaurateur

Challenge: The challenge for downtown is how to expand the core area of activity, so that downtown's many mini-districts begin to function like a whole downtown.

Solution: What's missing is urban infrastructure, parking and mobility options. You have to recognize that the core is not limited to two- or three-block areas. You need to provide for the people who are coming to downtown an easier way for them to experience the multiple activity nodes. Mobility includes new bicycle and walking trails and new public transportation options.

Bill Foster, 46, lawyer

Challenge: The biggest challenge downtown is creating an environment that is conducive to the success of our businesses.

Solution: For downtown, that involves public safety, codes, construction and permitting, sanitation, transportation and parking management with the big one being public safety. I envision a police department downtown where officers are actually out of their cars, walking a beat. Now with that will come homeless outreach and panhandling enforcement, which are also issues. You bring in sanitation. It must be clean. I use the term Disneyesque. Our downtown must be accessible and inviting. I will create a separate mayor's action line solely for businesses.

Scott Wagman, 56, business owner

Challenge: The challenge is to restore a better work/residential balance. We succeeded wildly in making downtown St. Pete a great place to live, but businesses have left.

Solution: We have to increase the police presence to provide security. Businesses are not going to want to have their businesses there if there are panhandlers. Next, we need to aggressively recruit businesses, both local and out of town, to come on down and relocate in downtown St. Petersburg. I want to work with the economic development of St. Petersburg, economic development of Pinellas County and the chamber to have a full court press to get businesses to relocate here. The next portion of that is we need to revitalize sections of downtown, including BayWalk, which is almost under way, and the surrounding areas, so when people are making decisions about where they want to relocate, this is an attractive option.

Kathleen Ford, 52, lawyer

Challenge: Crime.

Solution: We need to see more visibility of officers on the street. We need to see better response from dispatch. We need to change the way dispatch is instructed on priorities. We need to send an officer out when there has been a crime committed and collect the evidence and prosecute the criminals. There is obviously the issue of panhandling. We need to be aggressive about people entering the street to get some money. That is a public safety hazard. We need better coordinations with the Sheriff's Office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. We also need some additional software for electronic mail or messaging that allows officers to notify neighborhoods or businesses of a particular problem.

Jamie Bennett, 57, City Council member

Challenge: The biggest challenge for downtown is that we have eight years of incredible activity and we have seen great successes, but, now as some of the older facilities start to show their age, we have to make sure they are upgraded and improved.

Solution: I will continue to work to bring BayWalk back to its former glory. For the Pier, we have to develop the renovation plan and complete the vision of what people want and then figure out how to pay for it. We need to continue to address the homeless issues, and continue to address visibility of police.

Larry Williams, 64, business owner

Challenge: The biggest challenge is panhandlers.

Solution: The solution is whatever ordinances we have in place we must dramatically improve upon them. The second thing, it will be a priority that the police will be more visible and on the street.

Richard Eldridge, 47, student

Challenge: The biggest challenge is the economy.

Solution: I would like to eliminate all the parking fees downtown. I want to see if it makes a difference. We will look at lowering taxes.

Paul Congemi, 52, homeless advocate, declined to comment.

What challenges does downtown St. Petersburg face? 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 5:30am]

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