Despite the depressing news about store closures at BayWalk, all is not lost in downtown St. Petersburg.
About 69 business leaders, in conjunction with the Downtown Business Association, met at American Stage on Friday for a conversation with Mayor Bill Foster on matters for business growth, retention and support.
The event, organized by Tom Sexauer, president of the DBA, and Shrimatee Ojah-Maharaj, assistant director of Community Enrichment, was an opportunity to announce the formation of the St. Petersburg Business Alliance.
It also set the stage for Foster to launch the Business Assistance Center's new Business Support Line — (727) 893-7000 — dubbed a one-stop facility for starting or growing small businesses. The new initiative is in line with Foster's campaign promise to streamline the daunting task that some business owners face in doing business with the city.
Goliath Davis, senior administrator and leader of the BAC, introduced his team and explained how they have divided the city into six corridors, with city staffers assigned to each.
Foster stressed that the city's intention is to "Do no harm, then assist."
Good for them.
The gathering also afforded leaders from various business districts the opportunity to give updates on challenges or new initiatives. In the M.L. King district, Mark Taber shared that business owners were working to get Dr. M.L. King Jr. Street back to a two-way street. The district includes business owners along the corridor from 26th Avenue S to 34th Avenue N.
A representative said the 49th Street district, which includes the city of Gulfport, will open a community garden in April.
Sara Stonecipher is leading the effort along the 600 block of Central Avenue for a formal association — Central Arts District — with plans for a grand opening on April 6. About 24 new businesses should be open by the end of April, she said.
The mayor defended the city's stance on raising rates for parking meters, adding that if parking is free after a certain time, the workers will park there, thus limiting parking for customers.
I offer a simple solution: Offer a limited number of free parking vouchers in the city-owned garages to downtown business owners for their employees.
The mayor also stressed the importance of two key issues facing the city this year: the Rays and the Pier.
"This is a very important season (for the Rays) — it's a dire year. It is important to support this team, this year at that location. If we don't do that this year, we'll never get to the discussion of where they'll play next year.
"They need to see that St. Petersburg loves the Rays. Put signs in your windows. We need to support them and fight to keep them here," he said.
In addition to the Rays, Foster stressed that it is just as important for the business community to support businesses at the Pier.
"Go to the Pier and encourage others to do the same," he said, adding that the city is still a ways from figuring out what to do with the iconic facility.
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Last week, Gulfport curtailed the hours of operation at Clam Bayou Park.
It seems the park has become a draw for nightlife that's wild and restless in nature.
Residents have been complaining about prostitution, drug abuse and inappropriate behavior in the more secluded areas at night.
Police Chief Robert Vincent asked the council to change the hours from dusk to dawn, in line with other parks in south Pinellas County. But the council compromised to appease residents who use the park and instead changed the hours from 4 a.m. to midnight to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Before the decision, residents at Tuesday's meeting were allowed to weigh in during a public forum.
"As soon as the sun sets, there's a steady migration to the park and they are not dog walkers or my neighbors," said Al Davis, who lives near the park. "And on any morning, you can find 40 crack containers."
The change is welcomed by most.
"There's a bad element in that park after dark, and the curfew (new hours) would handle that," said Kurt Zuelsdorf, owner of Kayak Nature Adventures on Clam Bayou.
"I thought it was unusual to have the hours … to midnight," he said, adding that most parks are dusk to dawn.
"Its tough for them (the police) to patrol that. I can't imagine them wandering around that park after dark. It gets really dark in there. A good deal of the park in undeveloped — which is why it has been attractive to that element."
But drugs, prostitutes and public lovers aren't the only problems in the park.
Often other abuses can be spotted in the light of day.
"Guys are drinking all the time on the fishing pier," said Zuelsdorf, adding that open container laws should be enforced. He also said unleashed dogs are another problem.
But there's also more wildlife than meets the eye. According to Zuelsdorf, there's a pack of wild dogs in Clam Bayou on the St. Petersburg side.
Sandra J. Gadsden is assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at (727) 893-8874 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/stpetesandi.