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Suckerville, where no dream is too silly to keep

St. Petersburg proved itself Thursday to be Suckerville.

In other words:

The city rolled over for Bay Plaza yet again.

The City Council voted 5-3 not to hold Bay Plaza to its duty even to build a measly movie theater.

Never mind the long-forgotten promises of the 1980s of Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman-Marcus and the other things.

Never mind the long-abandoned promises of a grand downtown.

No, the city had given up all that stuff a long time ago.

What they were talking about Thursday was a movie theater.

For the past couple of years, promising a movie theater was all it took to keep St. Petersburg on the hook.

Heck, maybe all it would have taken was to promise a new Circle K.

But even the movie theater was a false hope.

The deadline to start building it had been June 30, 1995.

Today.

Ding! Saved by the bell.

Bay Plaza now gets six months to cook up the next promise for how to develop the square blocks of downtown St. Petersburg that it controls.

Look on the bright side: It's now a whole six months before Bay Plaza has to break its next deadline.

The striking thing about the public hearing before the vote was the same old division in St. Petersburg _ downtown against neighborhoods.

Commercial real estate. Developers. Accountants. Appraisers. The Chamber of Commerce. Not only should St. Petersburg give Bay Plaza more time, they said, it should be grateful that the company deigns to stay.

My favorite of these was the commercial real estate lawyer who said instead of Bay Plaza breaking the contract, it was St. Petersburg that was in the wrong for "bad-mouthing" the company.

It also was hilarious to hear the downtown crowd play the big card _ Tampa-phobia. They all agreed that Tampa is a quite terrible place, especially nasty old Ybor City.

Why, they all fretted, there are bars in Ybor City! There are teenagers! This prospect of people enjoying themselves in public sent a collective shudder through the council. It is a good thing, they agreed, that St. Petersburg's land is firmly controlled by a wise government instead of that scary private sector.

The "score" of the public hearing was 41 speakers in support of Bay Plaza and 33 against. Even if you don't count the Bay Plaza employees and tenants who signed up to speak, there was still a good bit of real support.

There were good things about Thursday's meeting.

The people of the city packed the council chambers and listened politely. There was no name-calling. No hooting. No disrespect. It was a roomful of citizens who came together to disagree with each other.

The mayor, David Fischer, came out against Bay Plaza in what was one of the toughest decisions of his term. Yes, it was late in the game. Yes, he has been an apologist for the downtown regime. But he broke ranks with the crowd that brought him to the dance.

"I see it as a pure, unemotional business decision," the mayor told the council. He calmly spelled out his reasoning. It was a good performance.

The council's decision was significant for another reason. The council acted against the wishes of the mayor, and against the recommendation of the Times' editorial page. The neighborhoods have always believed those three camps to be in cahoots. Maybe such an independence of action is a good sign.

"The newspapers," council Chairwoman Leslie Curran hissed at one point, "do not run the city." To which I suspect thousands of readers (me among them) would exclaim: whew!

Finally, even if the council was dead wrong, damned-fool wrong, it was good to see the members do what they thought was right. Curran, in particular, was not cowed by a telephone death threat from some fool who also threatened to blow up a building.

So there was some good in it. Overall, though, St. Petersburg proved Thursday that it has not outgrown its small-town insecurity, its shame at being called "sleepy" in travel magazines, its pathological itch to Be Someplace and to out-do Tampa _ and its willingness to believe any illusion along those lines.

A big-league city? Not even close.

Suckerville.

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