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St. Petersburg needs new leaders to emerge

ST. PETERSBURG — Quick, name five of the most important community leaders in St. Petersburg.

"If you had asked me that question 10 years ago, I could have rattled off the names,'' responded St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Larry Williams after a pregnant pause. "I don't think that's true anymore."

St. Petersburg faces a leadership vacuum, and it's underscored by the looming retirements of Carl Kuttler at St. Petersburg College and the lackadaisical, wide-open mayor's race under way.

"I've wondered about that mayor's race," said businessman and philanthropist Bud Risser. "Nobody's catching anybody's attention. Nobody's creating any excitement.''

He speculated that it may be because St. Petersburg is basically in pretty good shape, so voters aren't especially concerned about who's in charge.

Certainly St. Petersburg has come a long way in the past decade, but it must be getting harder for lame-duck Mayor Rick Baker to keep a straight face in constantly declaring, "It's a great day in St. Petersburg!"

Two high schools in the city recently received a grade of D and one an F under Florida's school grading formula. Downtown is so filled with panhandlers, it's starting to resemble a giant sequel to Midnight Cowboy. The city's lone movie theater is struggling mightily as former customers flock to Pinellas Park's multiscreen.

The city is nowhere near reaching a consensus for what to do about the Pier or the Rays' long-term viability. Former Progress Energy Florida CEO Jeff Lyash, the fellow leading the community examination of ballpark options for the Rays, is leaving for a bigger job based in North Carolina.

"It appears we may have lost our leadership, but I don't believe that at all,'' said former Mayor Bob Ulrich, noting that what the city has lost is large, locally based corporations. "All I think we may have lost is our leadership with horsepower."

Even having St. Petersburg's Charlie Crist as governor has produced few dividends for the city. And where Bill Heller used to be a ubiquitous force at the helm of the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, how many people can name the school's current leader?

The city still has civic giants such as arts philanthropist Bill Hough and retiring Raymond James CEO Tom James, but scarce new blood is popping up to replace late or inactive leaders such as John Galbraith, Bette Wimbish and Roy Harrell.

Former Mayor Randy Wedding said the trend began about 20 years ago as megabanks started swallowing up locally owned banks such as Florida Federal, First National and Union Trust. Along with the St. Petersburg Times and Florida Power, Wedding said, those banks made up the core of the city's leadership.

"Now it's just a bunch of guys out in the wilderness taking a shot every now and then,'' he said.

That is pretty much what the mayor's race looks like, too: 10 candidates chasing maybe 25,000 votes and generating little enthusiasm in the process.

"There's a talented, qualified, good group of people, but no fire,'' lamented former state House Speaker Peter Wallace of St. Petersburg. "I'm afraid we may have sacrificed by moving the election to November. We're running the primary through the summer, when nobody wants to think about politics."

That's part of the problem. No leader has emerged in a St. Petersburg mayor's race stuck in the summer doldrums, and fewer are emerging in the city as a whole.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at or (727) 893-8241.

St. Petersburg needs new leaders to emerge 07/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 12:07am]
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