When BayWalk is boarded up and completes its transformation from downtown St. Petersburg's jewel to its biggest eyesore, we will know whom to blame. When Muvico closes and there is not a single movie theater in a city that is supposed to be major league, we will know where to point the finger. And when that blight causes the windows in those shiny new condos to remain dark and other downtown storefronts to close, we will know whom to call for an explanation: St. Petersburg City Council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Wengay Newton and Herb Polson.
In the midst of the greatest economic recession in our lifetimes, last week those four turned their backs on millions of dollars in investment and an opportunity to inject new life into a city landmark. They confused vacating a sidewalk with free speech rights. The result will be a major blight on downtown and fewer people there to hear protesters exercise those rights.
Free speech and the right to protest are precious, and they were on glorious display at City Hall last week before the council vote. There were sign-waving protesters outside, and inside the passionate speeches on both sides lasted for several hours. This was not a repeat of the stacked public meetings some members of Congress faced when they held forums on health care in August. The remarks were generally heartfelt, and the speakers were not trying to make Fox News.
Too bad Curran, Danner, Newton and Polson got caught up in the moment and lost their focus.
They forgot BayWalk could be built only because an earlier City Council took a risk and assembled the property for the old Bay Plaza project. They forgot taxpayers have poured more than $20 million into the complex over the years and now stand to lose their investment. They forgot what downtown was like before BayWalk opened in 2000, before the condos and the restaurants arrived on Beach Drive, before crowds from all over Tampa Bay flocked to downtown St. Petersburg on the weekends.
If earlier City Councils had been thinking as small as Curran, Danner, Newton and Polson, the Renaissance Vinoy hotel would still be gutted and fenced. There would be no Hilton a few blocks away. There would have been no Florida International Museum that helped bring people back downtown. There would be no domed stadium, no Tampa Bay Rays. All of those efforts required tougher votes than a sidewalk vacation at one time or another by City Council members who could look beyond the last protest sign or angry phone call.
This was not closing an entire street, which would have been too much. This was not creating a no-protest zone on a public sidewalk, which would have been illegal. This was not relegating protesters to an isolated field blocks away. Protesters could have reached the same audience from across the street. Now there will be no crowds to reach, so there will be no protesters. The only ones left will be the homeless and the panhandlers.
If these City Council members are so concerned about free speech, let's hear from them every weekend there is an event in the waterfront parks and protesters are unceremoniously cordoned off by orange fences in a tiny area to the side. And let's hear from them the next time a candidate for president comes to town, signs are confiscated and protesters are forced to stand blocks away.
There were some dynamics going on here that went beyond vacating a sidewalk. City Council members have been criticized for not standing up to Mayor Rick Baker, and perhaps this Gang of Four wanted to show their independence. But this was the wrong fight to pick for the wrong reasons.
The election also is a month away, and four council members are seeking re-election. Council members Karl Nurse and Jim Kennedy have opponents, but they spent considerable time studying the BayWalk issue and had the gumption to take a difficult vote to vacate the sidewalk. They joined Bill Dudley, who is not on the ballot this year, and Jamie Bennett, an unsuccessful candidate for mayor who spoke passionately about how far downtown St. Petersburg has come.
"Our downtown is a beautiful place,'' Bennett said, "and I refuse to turn back the clock.''
That's exactly what Curran, Danner, Newton and Polson did. Curran and Danner are running for re-election against opponents who opposed the sidewalk vacation. Curran, a Central Avenue business owner, should understand the stakes at BayWalk better than anyone. She expects help with parking and vacant storefronts near her business, but she could not vacate a sidewalk? Danner, the council chairman, wants to be a leader on transportation and other issues, but leadership requires taking the long view. Newton wants a city jobs program for teens, but with his vote he will cost a lot of teens jobs when the movies close. Polson knows downtown's history well, but he sounded like he wanted to vote against the sidewalk vacation and hoped it would still pass. You can't have it both ways.
So the City Council has saved a sidewalk for protesters who will not be protesting there because BayWalk will be closed and there will be no one to hear about their causes. And when my teenaged daughter asks one day soon why the movies are closed that she and her friends love to go to on Friday nights, I will give her four reasons: Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Wengay Newton and Herb Polson.