Kriseman touts city, promises sustained attention to poverty south of Central in annual speech

Rick Kriseman cites progress in 2015 and ongoing challenges such as public safety.
Mayor Rick Kriseman addresses the audience with the help of sign language interpreter Jessica Bellingar during his state of the city address at the Palladium on Saturday. LARA CERRI   |   Times
Mayor Rick Kriseman addresses the audience with the help of sign language interpreter Jessica Bellingar during his state of the city address at the Palladium on Saturday.LARA CERRI | Times
Published January 23 2016
Updated January 24 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman painted a picture of a city on the move Saturday in his state of the city address.

The portrait? A newly unified city with a booming downtown and enough civic juice to snag a Cuban consulate and keep Major League Baseball.

"The state of St. Petersburg is strong and sunny," Kriseman said to a crowd of about 500 that nearly filled the lower level of the Palladium.

Kriseman checked off the accomplishments of his second year in office — reaching a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, moving forward with a new pier design and presiding over a booming downtown economy.

But he also spent a considerable amount of time in his 33-minute address on problems afflicting the city's poorer, mostly black neighborhoods — gun violence, failing schools and a lack of economic opportunity.

He touted increased investments in youth jobs, a revamped Police Department and economic development strategies aimed as reviving Midtown, Childs Park and other struggling neighborhoods, but refrained from making promises of rapid change.

"The results of our investment may not be politically expedient. In fact, our work may not all manifest during my administration, or even my lifetime. But it's the right thing to do," Kriseman said.

And Kriseman drew a sharp distinction between his time in office and his predecessors' — without naming names.

On south St. Petersburg: "For too long, City Hall didn't always do the right thing. Our leaders took shortcuts. They erected pretty street lights and built things … without building up the people who live here."

On the Police Department: "There's no reason to mince words. The department I inherited was appalling."

He praised Tony Holloway, his hire as police chief, for reviving policing in the city. And he touted his urban affairs initiatives as marked change from past mayors' building projects and "window dressing."

Public safety and quality of life was what kept him awake at night, the mayor said, not issues like the pier and the Rays.

But he laid out his case for why he thinks the team would eventually choose to remain at Tropicana Field and announced a committee of fans, elected officials and business leaders to pitch the city's case to the team.

"We know we're a major-league city," Kriseman said.

But if the Rays choose to leave, Kriseman said, the city has 85 acres of prime real estate to develop.

"Bottom line, this is a win-win," Kriseman said.

With most of the City Council in attendance, Kriseman also pushed for his agenda on spending some of the $6.5 million in BP oil spill settlement funds on climate change and resiliency planning and a bike share program.

So far, council members have been cool to many of those items, preferring to dedicate money to fixing the city's aging infrastructure, which led to the dumping of more than 31 million gallons of sewage during heavy rains last summer.

Sewage problems didn't make it into the speech. And the uproar in some neighborhoods over the administration's initial refusal to contemplate alley pickups when the city began its recycling program last summer was framed as an example of an administration that listened to its residents.

The city will start alley pickups for 31,000 residents on Monday.

"It's how government should work," Kriseman said, asking the leaders of the neighborhood associations in Kenwood and Old Northeast to stand.

Kriseman, who attributed his raspy voice to his attendance at the Billy Joel concert in Tampa on Friday night, appeared confident and upbeat in a speech that brought multiple applause lines, especially when he described to the city as being "Trump-free."

In December, a Kriseman tweet banning Donald Trump from the city went viral.

Council Chairwoman Amy Foster said she thought the mayor had hit the right notes.

"I think it highlights the work that's been done over the last two years and that there is still a lot of work to do," she said.

Outside the theater, clutching a coffee cup and trying to stay out of strong winds, Kathy Gibson said she decided to come hear Kriseman speak to learn more about her new city.

His speech left her "excited, elated, motivated," said the 52-year-old art consultant who moved from Tampa, where she had lived for 25 years, just before Christmas.

"The attitude about things seems different here," Gibson said. "You can almost feel it."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. [email protected]

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