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Midtown lost its biggest advocate at City Hall; what happens next?

ST. PETERSBURG — Jamekka Harris wanted more for her cramped salon: She drew up a plan, held meetings, applied for a small-business loan. She was eyeing a prime spot in a shopping plaza next to Midtown's new supermarket.

But then she got nervous. Was it too risky? Wasn't she doing good enough? She wasn't sure what to do.

Then one day the door to her shop — and her future — opened wide.

In walked a tall, imposing man with a smoothly shaved head.

"You're one of the first black women to qualify for this," she recalled him saying that day in 2007. "You need to do this."

She had never met Goliath Davis III before, then the city's deputy mayor charged with developing Midtown.

Today, Meme's Beauty Gallery occupies 1,500 square feet — triple its old size — next to the Sweetbay Supermarket in Tangerine Plaza. Now Harris has pedicure and nail stations, a facial room, a touchscreen computer — and no regrets.

"I've been blessed ever since," she said.

Tangerine Plaza is a cornerstone of Davis' nine-year effort to revitalize St. Petersburg's historically black district — a job that ended with his abrupt dismissal earlier this month.

Mayor Bill Foster said he fired Davis because he "lost confidence" in him. There's more to the story, as there always is when it comes to Davis' tumultuous political career.

Many black residents saw Davis as far more than the city's top-ranking African-American. He was their man in City Hall, the mayor's envoy to Midtown. If something needed to be fixed, to be explained, to be smoothed over, he was the one to do it.

Now Foster insists the need for a middleman is gone. He will deal directly with Midtown residents — and Midtown's future — himself. The pledge has drawn considerable skepticism from those who viewed Davis as their connection to City Hall.

Others think it's long past time to get over the notion that only one man can bring St. Petersburg and Midtown together.

• • •

Restaurateur Melvin Hall, 62, is a bit of a rarity these days: The owner of Connie's Bar-B-Que on 16th Street S is happy with the city.

He loves the Police Department. He likes the quick response he gets when he calls the mayor's action center. When there was too much standing water in his alley, the city was on it.

Hall doesn't think Davis' leaving will change any of that.

What Hall is worried about is the vision, leadership and guidance that Midtown will lose without his friend, he said.

"You had someone looking out for Midtown," he said, "and if you take that away, Midtown can only go down."

When Foster fired Davis, he also dismantled his portfolio, reassigning his old duties — including Midtown development — to other departments.

Davis has been synonymous with Midtown since 2001 when then-Mayor Rick Baker tapped the retiring police chief to be his deputy mayor. Together, they oversaw the addition of amenities long denied to Midtown residents: a library, credit union, supermarket, drug treatment center, health center, post office and the Job Corps campus.

Davis helped Midtown residents understand how things got done at City Hall and how to get them done.

"You had somebody that you could go to who could provide insight into city civics and how the city organization works," said Grady Terrell III, whose firm, Terrell Industries, is an industrial fuel supplier and has contracts with the city.

"We were given access to opportunities that traditionally weren't available to small and African-American businesses," said Terrell, 46. "We hope the mayor doesn't turn back the clock."

Davis was their conduit, Hall said.

"It's not often you have people in the Mayor's Office you can talk to one on one," Hall said. "Mr. Davis, you can see him sitting at a red light and say 'Hey, I need to talk to you,' and he'll pull over."

The link is evident at Harris' beauty shop. She and Baker sport wide smiles in a large, framed photo taken at her grand opening.

"He made that happen," she said of Davis.

• • •

While support for Davis runs deep, his critics also are many.

His amorphous duties in Midtown have fed that latter contingent.

"Personally I've never been really clear on what Mr. Davis does," said Sharon Saulsby, 54, who works in investments and is an associate minister at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. "It will be interesting to see what happens next."

Foster defended his decision to break up Davis' responsibilities, pointing out that he created the job last year to keep Davis at City Hall. "Where the departments have been placed are actually strategically better," he said.

Maria Scruggs-Weston, 53, a former law enforcement officer who works in corrections, offers a typical Davis criticism: She thinks he didn't work for the success of all in Midtown — just the cliques he supported.

In 2002, she said, she proposed creating a wellness institute but was rebuffed. In 2009, she pitched a youth public service academy to prepare kids for jobs. "I didn't even get a callback or response," she said.

Too often, she said, city projects are decided by insiders like Davis.

To her, Baker elevated Davis because of his deep ties to the black community.

"(Baker) had no connections, and it was his way of establishing a link," said Scruggs-Weston, who once ran against Baker. "But it was just the wrong strategy."

Community activist Sami Leigh Scott, 52, said that it will take more than infrastructure to help Midtown. The area needs more resources to address crime, unemployment and education.

"That part of town has been plagued with more crime and less services than anywhere else in the county," she said, "and I'm not just criticizing Goliath Davis. I'm critical of all of our elected officials.

"A building makes somebody feel good when they can point to a library. But a library doesn't produce the education that our kids are in dire need of."

• • •

Tragedy brought an end to Davis' 37-year city tenure.

Three police officers were shot and killed just 28 days apart.

Davis angered many when the former police chief did not attend the officers' funerals. Later, he said lingering trauma from the death of a fellow officer 30 years ago was the reason. He said he paid his respects at the officers' wakes.

But then he and the mayor became talk radio fodder when Davis attended the funeral for one of the cop killers. Davis insisted he was there to support the family, not the criminal.

The mayor fired Davis the day after the second police funeral, March 2, saying he "lost confidence" in him. Davis said it was because he ignored Foster's order to attend the second service.

Foster's decision is still roiling the community, but many agree on this: No longer should Midtown rely on just one person to bridge the gap with City Hall.

Terrell pointed out that within the city and the black community there is a wide range of opinion about what to do next.

"The community's not a monolithic block of people," he said. "There are a tremendous amount of voices that the mayor could access. There's so much diversity in the community."

Foster held several meetings with community groups last week to discuss the future. More are coming, he said, along with change.

"We're not going to do things the way we've always done them," Foster said.

But the mayor also said that he can be the conduit to Midtown.

Hall, the restaurateur, says that shouldn't be the mayor's role.

"Rick Baker and Go Davis were a team, they worked hand in hand," Hall said. "I think Foster's a one-man team. He's the chief and all the Indians. He's taking on too big a load."

Harris stands outside her beauty shop and looks beyond Tangerine Plaza. There's a lot more work that still needs to be done, she said.

"I wish Goliath had another four years."

Midtown lost its biggest advocate at City Hall; what happens next? 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 9:42pm]
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