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2 gambles and what they cost

Two men in their 60s, Calvin McNally and Dick Southern, were sitting in front of a downtown apartment house that has a worn brick facade. They were smoking no-name brand cigarettes and complaining. I wanted to ask them what they thought would happen to St. Petersburg now that baseball is going elsewhere and Bay Plaza is going nowhere.

But Calvin McNally and Dick Southern wanted to talk about other things.

Calvin explained how somebody had stuck a knife in his back just two weeks after he got here from Georgia and took his $15. Dick said he'd already moved four times, looking for a safe, quiet place. He'd been robbed, too. Whoever did it even had a key to his room.

"I wouldn't give you 15 cents for this town," Calvin said through bleary eyes. "I'm going to find me someplace else to live by the first of the month."

I tried to get him and his friend Dick back on the subject of baseball and Bay Plaza, but it wouldn't work.

A stranger with a dirty shirt and an odd glitter in his eye passed by and began chattering to us about the pigeons he saw in the grass.

After him came a fat woman with the kind of orangey tan that only homeless people develop. Over her back was slung a huge clear plastic bag, crammed with empty aluminum cans.

"You got a lot of people here," Dick Southern said in a confidential tone, "whose elevators are not stopping on all floors."

This was downtown St. Petersburg, Wednesday morning. This was why somebody once thought the multimillion-dollar gamble on Bay Plaza was worth it. And why another mega-million-dollar bet on baseball and the Dome was worth it.

Something had to be done. Well, what now?

If you know where St. Petersburg is headed, then you are smarter than anybody else involved in this double whammy of scheming gone sour.

Calvin McNally and Dick Southern don't dress as well as Neil Elsey, that smiling developer lately of Bay Plaza, or Steve Porter, that long-winded lawyer who led the baseball ownership group.

But it seems pretty obvious that Dick Southern's observation about this town now is true.

"They call this progress?" he said. "This isn't progress. It's going backward."

He was complaining about the riffraff in downtown St. Petersburg again. How could I explain to him that if downtown St. Petersburg seems worse than ever now, it's because nobody is shopping at all those stores that were closed when Bay Plaza took them over? Only the homeless and the crazy are left.

But I shouldn't complain. At least there is some life in the streets.

People used to live around the Dome. Now the neighborhood is a flat expanse of parking lots, shadeless and inhumane. The Dome sits in the middle, empty and running up a bill.

They call this progress? What you might call it is comeuppance.

It was not wrong to want to do more for St. Petersburg. But it was wrong to be so embarrassed by the old things, and the old people, that the only alternative deemed to be viable was bulldozing the former and driving out the latter.

And worse yet, to do so on the promises of money men whose world views were shaped by the window frames of their country clubs.

I heard Neil Elsey talk before the City Council a few weeks ago, when he smiled his way out of his part of the Bay Plaza false starts and delays. Then Wednesday, I heard Steve Porter get defensive and angry at a press conference when he tried to explain why he had no baseball franchise.

Their styles were day and night to each other. But the bottom line was the same: mega-deals, fancy dreams, talk and doubletalk that was hard to figure, and never a mention of the city's heart and soul.

Some cities are high-rise cities. Some are two- and three-story towns.

Tampa is a high-rise city. St. Petersburg is a two- or three-story town, perfectly capable of being busy and vital and varied without trying to copy Tampa or New York or Houston or any place else that St. Petersburg isn't and probably never will be.

This is no argument on behalf of that celebrated St. Petersburg lobbying group that says no to everything.

It is an argument for finding a middle ground, between what St. Petersburg was and what, until events of the last few disappointing weeks, it was going to be.

Next time, maybe St. Petersburg will get it right.

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