When I moved to St. Petersburg in 1994, downtown was on virtual life support. The place was dreary, especially at night.
Being a movie buff, I was disappointed that I had to drive to the Tyrone Square Mall or nearby Crossroads or Pinellas Park to see Dirty Harry and the Terminator blow away bad guys. I hadn't hung out in bars since graduate school in Chicago, so I didn't worry about hard-core drinking spots. I did, however, like good restaurants and was surprised we had so few.
Downtown gradually started to get new life, but it still didn't feel like a real downtown to me, especially at night. Then BayWalk opened in 2000, and a renaissance began. As an open-air, Mediterranean-style complex, it quickly became the city center, a landmark, a must-see venue for out-of-towners. As the complex was being built, Mel Sembler, the developer, told the St. Petersburg Times: "A sense of place, that's what we're creating."
He was right.
When friends visited me, I took them to BayWalk first, where we had a choice of several restaurants and bars, movies and upscale retail shops. Even, I — who have never called any place home — felt a sense of pride in showing off BayWalk.
I had become a stakeholder.
What do I tell my friends today? That we are letting this jewel slip away? That we started taking it for granted? That we didn't listen to patrons who warned they would stop coming if teen rowdiness didn't cease, if brawls and gunfire didn't stop, if security wasn't improved, if they stopped feeling safe in the parking garage, if demonstrations continued to mar the family experience?
Well, I'm one of those complaining citizens, but because I'm stubborn and refuse to let others rule my life, I still go to BayWalk — just not as frequently. Thousands of other people are not so stubborn and have given up.
So what can be done to save BayWalk? How do we get the paying customers back?
In a Dec. 13 editorial, the Times wrote: "The city worked long and hard to make BayWalk possible. It should work equally hard to keep it and to be an honest broker in encouraging a new mix of retail, restaurants and movies to help it flourish. The city should improve security, landscaping, parking — maybe even cut a deal on parking rates or on the rental of retail space in the street-level storefronts the city owns under the garage."
In response to this editorial, BayWalk business owner Michael Shapiro wrote: "While the Times is asking the city to help save BayWalk, I am appealing to the public," he wrote. "You, too, can take steps to help save and support your downtown and the entertainment and retail complex."
Shapiro didn't spell out what the public can do, but I will. First, all St. Petersburg residents should realize that they are stakeholders in BayWalk and that stakeholders take care of their prize. We should realize that BayWalk is a place of business before it is anything else. If the complex doesn't get paying foot traffic, it will become a site of shuttered windows and fond memories.
Much has been made of freedom of speech and the right to hold mass demonstrations at BayWalk. Well, yes, I respect those freedoms and rights. But I know this: A healthy dose of common sense must come with our freedoms and rights if they are to mean anything, if they are to accomplish what we want them to accomplish, if they are to avoid doing more harm than good.
What good is a freedom that needlessly destroys a public treasure?
Here is my suggestion to protest organizers: Before bringing your group to BayWalk, ask yourself if this is the right venue for what you want to accomplish. Would the open expanse of Williams Park be more appropriate? Is your intention to disrupt business? Answer these questions honestly.
Then, we have parents. They, too, are stakeholders in BayWalk. So are their children. They should take responsibility to talk with their kids about appropriate conduct in a place of business. What lessons do children learn when they see how easily their behavior can cause needless violence? What have they learned by seeing that their actions can drive away paying customers and ruin businesses?
Shapiro is right. The public also must do its part to save BayWalk. The city and business owners can't shoulder all the responsibility. Saving BayWalk must be a communitywide effort.