Business community largely silent on St. Pete mayor's race

Leaders say they're still waiting for one of the St. Petersburg candidates to impress.
Published August 24 2013
Updated August 24 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Amid all the talk about crime and bettering neighborhoods, business leaders were waiting for mayoral candidates to differentiate themselves on their plans to grow the city before Tuesday's primary.

It never happened.

Instead, voters heard generic promises to create more local jobs and make the city more attractive to businesses. The mayor repeatedly touted the return of cranes downtown.

As a result, business executives in Florida's fourth-largest city have remained mostly silent in a race that pits Mayor Bill Foster against challengers Rick Kriseman and Kathleen Ford.

It's no coincidence that some executives donated to Foster and Kriseman, widely considered frontrunners.

"The business community is in a wait-and-see mode," said Chris Steinocher, head of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. "From a business standpoint, we must and will work with whomever is in that seat."

After watching televised debates, former Sembler Co. CEO Craig Sher isn't surprised that no single candidate has emerged at the top.

He pointed to their stances on allowing the Tampa Bay Rays to explore stadium sites outside the city as long as taxpayers are protected. Foster and Kriseman both favor the idea, while Ford says taxpayers have too much invested in Tropicana Field to let the Rays leave.

"All three are on the same page," said Sher, who donated to Foster and Kriseman. "I don't see any difference. They're not diametrically opposite on many issues."

Differences may emerge when the field is narrowed to two, said Steinocher, who blames the controversy surrounding the Pier for stifling discussion.

"The Pier issue has sucked so much out of it," he said. "People are worn out talking about it."

Foster and Kriseman blame forums with timed responses, saying that isn't the best venue for explaining economic visions. Ford did not return numerous calls for comment.

Olga Bof, the founder and president of Keep Saint Petersburg Local, agrees that there wasn't enough time in many debates to fully vet candidate positions. Her group will host a Sept. 17 forum to quiz candidates for mayor and council on only business matters.

"We didn't want speed dating with 30-second responses," Bof said.

Bof wants the city to focus more on growing local businesses "instead of chasing global corporations with 2,000 employees."

Andrew Hayes, president of the Grand Central District Association, said his group also hasn't decided on a candidate.

He wants to know how community redevelopment plans will be funded as expansion seeps from downtown. He also thinks small businesses would grow faster if the city marketed what each district offers to visitors.

"We need to bring more people in," said Hayes, managing principal at Hayes Cumming Architects on Central Avenue. "Everything west of MLK is still struggling."

The chamber's political committee endorsed Foster, but Steinocher stressed that the mayor didn't surge ahead of Kriseman. (Ford could not attend an interview with the group, citing a scheduling conflict.)

"The business community recognizes that this administration has worked to create a safe environment where businesses thrive," Foster said. "Mr. Kriseman has no executive experience."

Kriseman disagreed, saying the close scoring shows that "Foster hasn't been the elected leader the business community expected."

The candidates' websites also contain few details on their economic plans.

"We must do a better job of attracting new businesses and supporting existing ones in order to compete with other cities," Kriseman's site says.

Ford's offered less, vowing to "reinvigorate all our business districts" and "expand local businesses."

Foster's site touted successes already in hand: "Our city is realizing incredible growth in businesses supporting technology, medical, marine sciences, arts, insurance and financial services, and hospitality."

The brevity doesn't satisfy some executives.

Bud Risser, who helped spearhead the petition drive to put the Lens on the ballot, said he wants specific ideas on how to grow the marine science industry.

That growth could keep young workers in the area, said the Risser Oil Corp. executive, adding, "I'm disappointed that nobody has yet begun to talk about important issues."

Chamber chair and Carlton Fields attorney Dave Punzak described the primary as "kind of quiet" and said, "A lot of folks don't want to jump on board in the primary."

The candidates in the general election need to share extensive visions on how to promote commerce, he said.

"Look at this city, we're on the cusp of something better," Punzak said.

Foster, Ford and Kriseman are all lawyers, former City Council members and longtime residents.

Even though St. Petersburg is a large city, its business community is a small, close-knit group of executives who have lived here for generations. Friendships could decide votes.

But one message from the business world seems clear:

"We are looking for a strong leader," Sher said. "The community, the City Council and the business community wants to be led."