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A city that might live down to its self-image

When I came to work in St. Petersburg a few years ago, people tripped over themselves to apologize for the downtown.

They apologized for not having enough restaurants, even as we had Cuban food. Italian food. French food. Vietnamese food. Hot dogs, too, both Coney Island and Chicago-style.

They apologized for not having enough stores. They took the recession personally, as though it were a conspiracy against St. Petersburg.

They apologized for having a Dome. What fools we were to have built it! Why, you Tampa folks must be laughing your heads off at us!

They apologized for having a Pier. No good stores or eat joints. The water is washing it away underneath. The whole thing has to be subsidized by the city. The miniature golf course needs fixing. And did we tell you about the time the fish tank broke?

They apologized for having open, pleasant green space along their waterfront, instead of tall glass buildings. Asked about Shakespeare in the park, they talked about mosquitoes.

They were bitterly ashamed.

So they raced to knock their own city before somebody else could.

The best defense, they figured, was a good inferiority complex.

This nagging insecurity is what makes it possible for St. Petersburg to cling to Bay Plaza.

St. Petersburg clings to Bay Plaza for the same reason a rich, elderly woman I once knew in Tampa clung to her young lover. She suspected he didn't love her _ but the illusion was all she had.

Eight years ago, St. Petersburg and the Bay Plaza Cos. signed a deal to redo this downtown that St. Petersburg is so bitterly ashamed of.

What promises! St. Petersburg would be transformed. Saks Fifth Avenue. Gucci. Fancy hotel.

The Shining City on the Hill.

Better than Tampa.

Let's don't linger over the details of the bitter intervening years.

You know in general what happened.

Nothing.

After several years of stall tactics, Bay Plaza finally announced a couple of years ago that it would instead build . . .

A movie theater, 24 screens.

A movie theater.

Did St. Petersburg then sue for breach of contract, because Bay Plaza had abandoned the shining-city promise?

No. The city rejoiced. The chamber cried out in triumph. The mayor gushed.

Over a movie theater.

Except that didn't happen, either.

Bay Plaza used the promise of a movie theater to get the city to forgive a few more deadlines. To condemn the land, vacate public right of way, fork over the whole thing tied up in a bow.

Through it all, Bay Plaza refused to show any documents to the city. Take our word for it, the company said.

Duhhhhhh, hokay, the city said.

Last year at a public hearing the City Council had a chance to blow the whistle at long, merciful last. The people of St. Petersburg filed into City Hall to speak. The overwhelming majority begged the city to act.

But the City Council granted Bay Plaza new extensions lasting into the next century. Only a pesky deadline of June 30, 1995, remained for work to start on the theater building.

June 30, 1995.

This Friday.

But there is no movie theater. No prospect of one, either. They even took down the "coming soon" sign.

On Thursday, the day before the deadline, the City Council will take up the old question _ cut the cord, or roll over and play dead yet again.

How many more sets of encyclopedias will St. Petersburg buy from these traveling salesmen who never deliver the goods?

How many more magazine subscriptions?

Isn't it enough that baseball is coming to St. Petersburg? Doesn't that cure the inferiority complex?

No, apparently not.

Back in Mayberry, the con men from the big city would drive into town and fool everybody. Even Aunt Bee.

At the last second, though, old Andy would save the day.

There is no Andy on the St. Petersburg City Council to save the day. But if that council does what I think it's going to do, then the rest of the Mayberry description will fit just fine. At long last, the insecurity that drives the leaders of St. Petersburg . . . will be fully deserved.

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