St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's swearing-in ceremony offered an inclusive tone Thursday in imagery and substance that should be a recurring theme in the new administration. The event was held outside City Hall rather than inside, creating space for several hundred spectators who reflected St. Petersburg's racial and political diversity. The new mayor also wove progressive themes through a short speech that signaled a more ambitious approach to local government and embraced the potential for public policy to improve economic opportunity for all residents.
As he did throughout his campaign, Kriseman emphasized the importance of bringing more jobs and new life to Midtown. He called high unemployment and low property values in the poor, largely minority neighborhoods "unacceptable'' and recalled the area's rich history. And he correctly noted that government and money alone cannot provide all the answers.
Midtown has made significant progress since racial disturbances rocked the area in 1996. Former Mayor Rick Baker helped bring a new post office, a grocery store and strong efforts to improve public education. But that progress stalled under Mayor Bill Foster, although a restaurant has finally opened in one historic building and Walmart will open a grocery to replace the closed Sweetbay. Midtown voters who backed Foster in 2009 turned to Kriseman last year and helped him become the first challenger to defeat an incumbent strong mayor. The new mayor already has followed through on his pledge to appoint a high-level administrator to oversee Midtown's redevelopment, and it will require a sustained effort to make real progress.
Kriseman smartly cast the November transit referendum as another opportunity to create more economic opportunity for St. Petersburg. He renewed his strong support for Greenlight Pinellas, which calls for a new 1 percent sales tax that would pay for enhanced bus service and a new light rail system that would connect downtown St. Petersburg with downtown Clearwater — and eventually, Tampa. One of Kriseman's transition task forces suggests Kriseman and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn make a coordinated effort to push for rail across a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, which is critical to the region's future. Kriseman should make it a top priority to sell the transit referendum and lobby state and federal officials to support that critical link across the bay.
St. Petersburg City Hall too often isolated itself under previous mayors, and Kriseman intends to embrace a more thoughtful regional approach that recognizes St. Petersburg's success is linked to the success of Tampa Bay. He went further Thursday, indicating he will not shy away from broader issues such as global warming and gun violence. That would be a positive development. Other coastal cities are frankly addressing the impact of long-term rising sea levels, and there is no reason the St. Petersburg mayor should not join his peers in pushing for ways to reduce the number of guns on the streets.
The swearing-in of a new mayor is an opportunity to set a new tone. Kriseman seized it by offering an ambitious vision and ordering the fence at the closed Pier to be removed to allow for fishing and walking. Now it gets harder, from pursuing a new Pier design to resolving the stalemate over a new baseball stadium. The new St. Petersburg mayor and his team face a learning curve, and there is no time to tread water.