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Baker pushed St. Petersburg toward change

ST. PETERSBURG — The ceremonial preambles stretched out for over an hour, each more laudatory than the last, as the crowd shifted under the ivory tent waiting for Mayor Rick Baker to signal for the basket full of gold scissors.

Every detail let it be known: This was not just another ribbon cutting.

After years of haggling and 112 days of construction, Baker celebrated the grand opening of the first financial institution in the heart of the city's poorest neighborhoods Tuesday. The project completed a four-part plan of rebirth once deemed impossible: He ushered a new post office, supermarket, library and bank into an area previously shunned by government and business investors alike.

The morning's pomp ended as Baker and his wife marched through the door, handed over $5,000 and completed the bank's first deposit.

It was a theatrical and fitting close to Baker's tenure as chief executive of St. Petersburg, where he has led with a passionate attention to detail and a relentless demand for attention.

After almost nine years, it's hard to remember when this city didn't rotate around Richard M. Baker. His micromanaged deals and policies have ignited debate and transformed entire communities.

He recorded greetings for callers trying to get through to City Hall. He appeared at concerts, art shows and annual New Year's Eve celebrations, often with guitar in hand, poised for an impromptu performance. No occasion was too small to warrant a ribbon cutting or photo opportunity.

And now he is leaving City Hall. Baker, 53, will be term-limited out of office Jan. 2, when successor Bill Foster will be sworn in.

Baker's legacy of dramatic civic growth is being tested by the recession and crime statistics. He is more ambitious than ever, but has no job lined up.

And St. Petersburg's future is as unclear as his own.

• • •

Baker was determined to build St. Petersburg up, at whatever cost, even if taxpayers often had to foot the bill.

Time and again, he ordered the city staff to purchase land, then turned around and practically gifted it to investors. His persistence can be seen in downtown's new towering condominiums and office buildings.

The change also was evident in other parts of the city. There were 29,401 industrial spaces in north St. Petersburg in 1999. This year, there were 39,640.

Baker made it happen by selling his vision to corporate executives or land developers in private meetings.

Carl Kuttler, president of St. Petersburg College, worked with Baker to bring the Florida Orchestra to St. Petersburg and create an arts hub downtown across from Williams Park. The project was a done deal within six months, Kuttler said.

"When there wasn't a way, there was a way found," he said.

Baker personally picked out a new waterfront home for the Salvador Dali Museum and sold the City Council on leasing the organization the public land for $1 annually. The museum is slated to open in 2011 adjacent to the Mahaffey Theater.

"It's almost like a Lincoln Center in New York, where you have several arts venues," said Hank Hines, executive director of the Dali. "He created something of great potential for our community."

In other areas, he fell short.

Parts of Midtown are still among the city's toughest streets, and its residents and small businesses complain of economic barriers. Baker's goal of a seamless city seems as distant today as it did when he first took office.

And then there is the stalled economy. More condominiums and office spaces have translated into the highest vacancy rates in a decade.

Baker insists the city is poised to recover once banks start lending again and the unemployment rate falls. He points to three hotel projects waiting to break ground, including the four-star Grand Bohemian project on First Avenue N.

The prime lot has sat vacant since city officials ceded the land to an Orlando developer in 2004 via a $1.5 million unsecured loan that puts taxpayers' money at risk.

• • •

Baker's crime fighting efforts have yet to draw a final review.

Total crime dropped by nearly 9 percent during Baker's tenure and violent crimes are down by 23 percent.

But law enforcement has always been a sore subject during Baker's regime. His first police chief was fired after three months for making a statement that many interpreted as a racial slur.

His next choice was longtime department veteran Chuck Harmon, who was dogged by complaints of ineffectiveness for years, prompting the chief to vow to become a better spokesman this year.

During this year's election, police union officials flocked to Foster's campaign in large part because he promised to move dramatically from Baker's allegedly lax law enforcement policies.

Detective Mark Marland, president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, said Baker should have been more aggressive.

"Some of these guys don't feel like they are being paid to do what they need to do, which is go out and get the criminals," Marland said.

• • •

A former chamber of commerce chairman, Baker was easily the business crowd's favored candidate when he announced his mayoral ambitions in 2000. He teamed with black leaders charmed by his shared Christian outlook, won over traditionalists with his tempered speeches, and in March 2001, was declared the winner after a heated nine-way race. His margin of 6,451 votes was the largest in a city mayoral contest since 1989.

The corporate lawyer had no governing experience. He embraced the goals of his predecessors: better schools, more economic development, less crime and improved government efficiency.

Observers said he wasn't content with moderate results. He hung performance charts in his office. In his waiting room, he hung a placard that read, "Never, never, never give up."

Said Baker: "There are multiple opportunities to give up and if you are not tenacious, you'll give up."

Baker's predecessor, David Fischer, became the city's first strong mayor after a public referendum he opposed. Baker, however, embraced the power the City Charter gave him.

"He doesn't take no for an answer," Fischer said.

Baker rallied staff members and massaged the City Council to secure his victories. As a result, the council built a reputation as a rubber stamp and Baker emerged as the primary authority at City Hall.

"He's figured out whether it's me or other folks, what it is that is important to them (and) ways to allow them to play a significant role," council member Karl Nurse said.

For instance, Nurse got Baker to sign off on a series of energy efficiency projects. The city is now gunning to become the most green government in Florida by next year.

In turn, Nurse supported Baker's plans to privatize the public sidewalk fronting the BayWalk complex and annex the northern edge of Tierra Verde, two wildly controversial measures.

Baker said he simply built relationships with council members.

"Nothing big in the city happens unless I want to do it and they want to do it," he said.

Still, Baker's tendency to create policy behind close doors and then present last-minute plans that were masked as urgent deals earned him frequent criticism from both enemies and allies.

"I personally prefer a participatory process instead of, 'you get it when I'm ready for you to have it,' " said council member Herb Polson.

• • •

Baker became so powerful within city politics, many think he helped name his successor. On the eve of this year's mayoral campaign, he rallied for Foster at churches and street medians, giving Foster a boost that may have pushed him over the edge. In the general election, Foster was the candidate who promised to most closely continue Baker's policies.

Baker himself can't imagine a St. Petersburg where he is not involved. He has staff members working on a campaign to get him named the next president of St. Petersburg College after Kuttler's pending retirement. If he doesn't get that job, he'll stay involved in some other way, he said.

During Tuesday's grand opening, Baker seemed reluctant to leave the spotlight.

"I'll be around if there is any help to be needed," he told the crowd.

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

A time line of

The Baker Years:

2001-2009

March 2001: Rick Baker trumps fellow lawyer Kathleen Ford in the general election.

April 2001: Baker announces police Chief Goliath Davis will become his deputy mayor for Midtown economic development.

December 2001: Baker fires newly hired police chief Mack Vines after he uses the word "orangutan" to describe a black suspect's resistance.

October 2002: Baker proposes closing one of the airport's two runways and selling part of the site. He eventually drops the plan after a public outcry.

February 2003: The first Grand Prix of St. Petersburg takes place. Baker secured the elite international auto race during his first year in office. With his support, the race eventually becomes an annual tradition. It's slated to continue through 2014.

September 2004: Baker announces a plan to cede control of the Mahaffey Theater to a private entrepreneur. The deal is rescinded after several St. Petersburg Times articles raise questions about Baker's secret haggling over the project.

November 2005: Baker scores big and Midtown gets its first supermarket, with the grand opening of the Sweetbay Supermarket at Tangerine Plaza on 22nd Street S.

January 2007: Police officers raid an illegal outdoor homeless camp. Images of officers cutting up tents trigger a national outcry. Baker, police Chief Chuck Harmon's boss, tells the Times he didn't know about the raid in advance.

March 2007: Baker and his staff enter into a confidentiality agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays concerning plans to use the downtown waterfront for a 35,000-seat, $450 million baseball stadium. Despite ongoing public discussions about the future of Al Lang Stadium, the deal is kept a secret until the Times breaks the story in November.

November 2008: The council approves Baker's plan to annex 18 acres along the northern edge of Tierra Verde, despite complaints from local, state and national officials that the deal seems to skirt election laws and violate county development goals.

May 2009: American Stage celebrates the grand opening of its new home at St. Petersburg College under a partnership co-orchestrated by Baker. The complicated 2007 deal created a new major arts hub downtown that saw St. Petersburg College gain the Palladium Theater and the Florida Orchestra relocate downtown.

September 2009: Baker endorses Bill Foster against longtime rival Ford to succeed him as mayor. He helps Foster celebrate his victory two months later.

October 2009: Baker's scholarship program for students reaches the 1,000 mark.

December 2009: Baker oversees the opening of Midtown's first financial institution, a GTE Federal Credit Union on 18th Avenue S. The facility completes Baker's early promise to bring a bank, post office, library and supermarket to one of the poorest parts of the city.

A time line of

The Baker Years:

2001-2009

March 2001: Rick Baker trumps fellow lawyer Kathleen Ford in the general election.

April 2001: Baker announces police Chief Goliath Davis will become his deputy mayor for Midtown economic development.

December 2001: Baker fires newly hired police chief Mack Vines after he uses the word "orangutan" to describe a black suspect's resistance.

October 2002: Baker proposes closing one of the airport's two runways and selling part of the site. He eventually drops the plan after a public outcry.

February 2003: The first Grand Prix of St. Petersburg takes place. Baker secured the elite international auto race during his first year in office. With his support, the race eventually becomes an annual tradition. It's slated to continue through 2014.

September 2004: Baker announces a plan to cede control of the Mahaffey Theater to a private entrepreneur. The deal is rescinded after several St. Petersburg Times articles raise questions about Baker's secret haggling over the project.

November 2005: Baker scores big and Midtown gets its first supermarket, with the grand opening of the Sweetbay Supermarket at Tangerine Plaza on 22nd Street S.

January 2007: Police officers raid an illegal outdoor homeless camp. Images of officers cutting up tents trigger a national outcry. Baker, police Chief Chuck Harmon's boss, tells the Times he didn't know about the raid in advance.

March 2007: Baker and his staff enter into a confidentiality agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays concerning plans to use the downtown waterfront for a 35,000-seat, $450 million baseball stadium. Despite ongoing public discussions about the future of Al Lang Stadium, the deal is kept a secret until the Times breaks the story in November.

November 2008: The council approves Baker's plan to annex 18 acres along the northern edge of Tierra Verde, despite complaints from local, state and national officials that the deal seems to skirt election laws and violate county development goals.

May 2009: American Stage celebrates the grand opening of its new home at St. Petersburg College under a partnership co-orchestrated by Baker. The complicated 2007 deal created a new major arts hub downtown that saw St. Petersburg College gain the Palladium Theater and the Florida Orchestra relocate downtown.

September 2009: Baker endorses Bill Foster against longtime rival Ford to succeed him as mayor. He helps Foster celebrate his victory two months later.

October 2009: Baker's scholarship program for students reaches the 1,000 mark.

December 2009: Baker oversees the opening of Midtown's first financial institution, a GTE Federal Credit Union on 18th Avenue S. The facility completes Baker's early promise to bring a bank, post office, library and supermarket to one of the poorest parts of the city.

Baker pushed St. Petersburg toward change 12/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 12:03am]

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