ST. PETERSBURG — The city's next mayor will inherit a slate of economic woes and unresolved issues.
Homelessness and unemployment rates are soaring. Downtown storefronts are increasingly vacant. Foreclosures are rising, as property values continue to fall, leaving craters in the city budget.
Courses will be set for the future of the Tampa Bay Rays, the remaking of the city's iconic Pier and the rehabbing of BayWalk, a downtown cornerstone.
But the city also is better off than many, said Mayor Rick Baker. After years of economic prosperity and growth, Baker said he led a fiscally conservative administration that invested heavily in redevelopment, education and saving for the future.
The city, Baker said, is poised to recover gracefully as the economy rebounds.
"I'm very bullish on where we are," he said. "Do you have challenges? Yes, but in the context of where we were 20 years ago, we didn't have a downtown, Midtown wasn't where it is now, we didn't even have neighborhood plans. … I would be very pleased to take over Jan. 2."
Whether voters agree with Baker could prove to be a critical factor in the outcome of Tuesday's mayoral election.
Candidates Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford are both affluent lawyers trained in the ways of the City Council and community boards.
However, their opinions of Baker and his accomplishments differ sharply.
Baker is supporting Foster, 46, who in return has praised Baker and his administration. He vows to maintain or expand many of Baker's efforts.
"The foundation is very solid," Foster said. "But we always have challenges. The next mayor cannot be satisfied with the status quo. No mayor can rest on the laurels of the previous administration, but you build on the successes which are already in place."
In contrast, Ford, 52, is quick to list a litany of unresolved problems and identify Baker's failures. Her vision for City Hall calls for more police officers, decreased taxes, greater transparency and stricter fiscal management.
But Ford, a longtime Baker rival who lost the 2001 mayor's race to him, is coy about just how divergent her administration will be.
"I'll let the voters decide if they think that is different," she said.
Unlike the current candidates, Baker had no political experience when he became mayor.
A longtime business leader, he set out to reshape the city's economic landscape, luring financial giants and high-tech firms to St. Petersburg's business corridors with tax breaks and cheap land.
He focused on education, establishing mentoring programs for students and coordinating relationships between business leaders and schools.
He renamed the city's troubled majority-black neighborhoods Midtown and set out to portray the area as a thriving, diverse enclave.
He expanded the city's tax base and built up robust reserves.
Many of his programs were successful.
Schools improved. In 2001, there were 10 "A" and "B" schools in St. Petersburg. This year, there were 26.
Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen said Baker's initiatives were crucial.
"The relationship and having the additional support, the mentors, the business partners, all of those helped improve achievement," she said.
From 2002 to 2007, unemployment declined. Businesses grew. Condominium towers spurted across downtown, creating a mix of shops, restaurants and homes.
"The Baker era has been a very good era," said former council member Earnest Williams, who served alongside Baker. "We've been fortunate to move the city forward. You can go anywhere now and say St. Petersburg? Hmm, sounds like a nice place."
Voters seem to agree.
In a recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll, 59 percent of voters rated Baker's job performance as good or excellent, up 4 percentage points from a similar June poll.
A majority of voters, 59 percent, said the city was headed in the right direction compared with 24 percent who thought St. Petersburg was on the wrong track.
The poll, conducted by Communications Center Inc. of Lakeland, had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
But Baker's tenure was not without controversy.
He was frequently criticized for favoring corporations over small businesses and exaggerating his successes.
During his tenure, he reduced funding to city shelters, art organizations and youth programs.
Critics also lamented Baker's propensity for secret dealings. Even Foster, a longtime ally, dubbed Baker the stealth mayor during his first term.
Baker's staff met secretly with the Tampa Bay Rays for at least seven months to discuss a new waterfront stadium before word leaked out.
Baker also pushed through an annexation of Tierra Verde's business district while the deal was still under investigation by the Justice Department.
Most recently, he pushed to give the sidewalk in front of BayWalk to the complex's owners despite complaints that the city had allowed for only limited public debate prior to the City Council's vote.
Both Ford and Foster have pledged to be more open when conducting city business.
"Mayor Baker is not one to sit down with people who disagree with him," said John Thomas, a lawyer who represents the Tierra Verde Community Association, which is suing the city over the recent annexation. "Maybe the new mayor will be."
Both candidates said they would not have supported the annexation.
Big changes promised
Both Ford and Foster have wide sweeping platforms that would require changes in nearly every city department.
The candidates have each pledged to drastically change the way the city creates its budget by requiring officials to justify every expense. They say they will work closely with local schools, help the homeless and diversify the city's economy by attracting more of high-tech firms like SRI International and Charles Stark Draper Laboratories, which Baker helped lure.
But of the two, Ford's plan seems the most transformative.
She's vowed to reduce taxes to help struggling businesses and residents by cutting jobs at City Hall and unnecessary spending. She said she also will eliminate downtown parking meters, which Baker greatly expanded to encourage turnover.
"We've got to decrease the burden on our businesses," she said.
Ford has been vocal about her disapproval of Baker's investment and budget policies, and specifically cites a $15.8 million risky investment loss the city incurred last year.
She vows to return some of the city's reserves to taxpayers to pay for her programs. She also pledged to reduce the salaries of the city's highest earners.
Ford's campaign also has benefited from the support of the local and state Democratic machines, although the race is officially nonpartisan. Baker and Foster are Republicans.
"She is concerned about the types of things a lot of Democrats support, things like transparency," said Pinellas Democratic chairman Ramsey McLauchlan. "Even people who like Rick Baker realize there are things in the city that need to change."
Conversely, Foster is more aligned with Baker's policies.
He has praised police Chief Chuck Harmon and stressed his ability to foster relationships with business, neighborhood and government leaders.
He also wants to eliminate waste in the budget and vowed to focus on needs over wants. But he wants to protect the city's reserves to prepare for a future disaster and calls Ford's budget proposal unrealistic.
"We have to work smarter, do more with less and rely heavily on our citizens to use their time and talent so they don't have to pony up more money," he said.
Like Baker, Foster has the support of many business leaders, including the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
"All things being equal, I think each candidate has some strengths and they each have some areas that are not so strong, where they need to improve," said Ross Preville, a vice president with Raymond James and Associates. "But I believe that Bill gives us the best chance to bring new businesses to this city. Bill has the ability to work together with the business community to get these kinds of things done."
The candidates' most significant challenge may be in finding money to keep their many promises amidst one of the most turbulent economies in recent history.
"If the economy is down, that means all our resources, all our taxes and our fines, all those things are down," said council Chairman Jeff Danner. "Yet gas, pensions and health care, all of those things will remain flat or go up."
Times staff writers Stephanie Hayes and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]