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Public talks to shape city 20 years hence

The six forums of Vision 2020 will try to make a mark on all aspects of St. Petersburg.

The city is plunging into its future, and it could be a hot topic.

Starting next month, six public forums will begin deciding what St. Petersburg's character should be 20 years from now.

Vision 2020 is expected to combine expertise and plain talk to produce a guiding idea.

The idea's aim will be to influence such urban elements as land use, housing, parks, transportation, commerce, technology and economics, officials say.

In the area of transportation, for example, count on bullet trains, bicycles versus cars, Albert Whitted Airport and pedestrian-friendly streets to generate talk. Each has its share of proponents and opponents.

A goal is to include all segments of the community in the discussions. City Council member Rene Flowers, who is on the Vision 2020 steering committee, promises to make sure the goal is reached.

"I don't want to be a part of this if in fact we are not going to be open and honest about how the city grew," Flowers said.

"We are going to have to be more inclusive than we have in the past," Flowers said.

The vision quest is planned as a serious, wide-reaching exercise.

The city will spend $50,000 to $75,000 to conduct it, said Bob Jeffrey, urban design manager. Planners are inviting two representatives from every neighborhood and business association. In fact, all residents are encouraged to attend the free sessions.

It is the first major planning effort since the city's comprehensive plan _ a state-derived document regulating growth _ was adopted in 1989.

Making the forums even more timely is the Legislature's intent during the next year or so to examine and possibly dismantle the state's Growth Management Act.

Fox 13 news anchor John Wilson will guide each forum. Most will be held at the Student Activities Center at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. One will be held at Bayfront Center.

Though the future is the focus, some unusual historical perspectives will lay the foundation.

Among speakers scheduled are USF professor Ray Arsenault, who was the first white St. Petersburg historian to explore in depth the history of the city's black residents; and Bruce Stephenson, a Rollins College professor whose book, Visions of Eden, chronicles the city's planning history.

Stephenson argues that St. Petersburg lost its chance to become a model Florida city because a visionary 1923 plan threatened investors who were making money from the decade's mammoth real estate boom.

Arsenault is paired with Peggy Peterman, a former St. Petersburg Times staff writer who will talk about the African-American experience in St. Petersburg.

"For the first time, you're not going to get this cushy, cottony story about how the city developed," Flowers said.

A design session, a kind of grand finale tentatively scheduled for May 18-20, will produce a more formal vision statement, which planners see as influencing such basic city documents as its comprehensive plan, land-use plan and zoning ordinances.

City boards such as the council and the planning commission eventually will consider Vision 2020's work.