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What the people say on Bay Plaza

St. Petersburg City Council chairwoman Leslie Curran is beginning to get the right idea: The people who are helping pay the bills for the failed Bay Plaza project _ taxpayers _ do indeed have a right to be heard.

But Curran is being either unrealistic or duplicitous in suggesting the city's private business partner, Bay Plaza Cos., can adequately respond to public questions about the project. Not only has the company reacted miserably to public opinion in the past, but also the job of seeking the input of city residents rests more appropriately with the elected council members anyway.

Next week, council members will get that opportunity. Whether they choose to listen is another question.

Mayor David Fischer has worked closely with neighborhood and business groups during his tenure, and he has framed Bay Plaza public opinion in the proper terms. It does matter that residents have lost faith in the project, Fischer says _ not because the politicians must meekly follow shifts in public opinion but because enduring public support creates a stability that is essential to the success of such a sizable, long-termproject. If council members don't think so, they should look at how much voters already have changed the direction of the council in just the past two elections.

Fischer has made a pragmatic, realistic business assessment of the Bay Plaza project, and he determined that a fourth contract extension would be unwise. Even council members, once they are able to put aside their defensiveness and bluster, seem to agree on at least two points: Bay Plaza cannot be granted extensions forever; and the project as originally conceived has failed. The question, then, becomes when to put an end to it.

If Bay Plaza's parent company wasn't in chaos, and downtown commerce was stagnant, and the city had no other hopes for its development future, and subsidizing the construction of private condo towers was appropriate, then extending the contract yet again might be defensible. It's certainly the easy way, at least in the short term. But the mayor is absolutely right when he says the city, through another contract extension, would only be delaying the inevitable. Public opinion is not going to change in six months, and neither are the economic conditions and corporate uncertainty that have destroyed the project. Bay Plaza has failed, and the city needs to begin immediately examining the alternatives.

Rejecting the contract extension does not mean running Bay Plaza out of town. It means the city for the first time in eight years can begin to consider a variety of downtown possibilities and can test the private market. That's progress _ and a development taxpayers are likely to support.

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