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Truth about BayWalk lies between 2 extremes

The more extreme public comments about the events of Friday night at BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg tend toward one of these poles:

(1) There is a conspiracy among City Hall, the St. Petersburg Police Department and the newspaper to minimize the true seriousness of this and other BayWalk incidents, so as not to jeopardize downtown development.

(2) No, wait, just the opposite! The newspaper is sensationalizing what happened to sell newspapers, and perhaps also because the Commie-lib rag hates BayWalk, its developer Mel Sembler, and really, the entire concept of profitmaking private enterprise. (Hi, Mel.)

Sheesh! I surrender. Feel free to use whatever term you wish for Friday night's events, since the newspaper's use of "melee" appears to be unacceptable _ "melee' being a wimpy word, down the scale from "riot" or "near-riot," but with uncertain standing vis-a-vis "disturbance."

For Pete's sake, whoever Pete is. Here is what happened:

A big fight broke out in BayWalk's youth-crowded courtyard late in the evening, starting among teens and spreading into the crowd. Dozens of police officers came. They arrested seven young adults and seven teens.

More fights broke out in the surrounding blocks after BayWalk was cleared at 11 p.m. There is no evidence the scuffle/melee/civilization-ending riot had any racial motivation.

Now, just in case anybody is not clear on this point:

This was bad.

Not good at all. Nope. We do not want mass fistfights and brawls in the BayWalk courtyard, nor in downtown St. Petersburg. We want it to be a friendly, family kind of place. BayWalk is a major part of the downtown revival over the past decade. It is not at all clear what would happen to the rest if BayWalk were to suffer.

On the other hand, this was not proof that Things Are Out of Control. It was middle schoolers getting out of hand in a crowded, high-energy setting, and then the fight spreading to some older people who should have known better than getting involved. The majority of the young adults arrested, ages 18 to 24, had never been arrested for anything before.

Still, it was news precisely because success for St. Petersburg's downtown is still relatively recent.

What this was, was proof that BayWalk has become too successful at attracting people, especially rowdy, unsupervised young people in the late evening.

Try curfews, if you want. More security and crowd control. Rules requiring parental presence. As long as they do it fairly, and it isn't so heavy-handed as to kill business. My own taste is to worry less about rowdy kids than about being hassled by overzealous security guards.

(Note to the City Council: I don't think holding more teen dances or other events to give "young people something to do" is going to work, unless you build 'em, say, an alternative 20-screen movie complex with a bunch of shops and restaurants.)

The important thing is to realize that we are talking about an ongoing management issue. There is nothing "wrong" at BayWalk. It is just part of any successful enterprise in a decent-sized city. This is not some snap-judgment situation that involves a quick scapegoat and an easy fix.

St. Petersburg is alternately jealous of, and competitive with, Tampa. Well, for once, the comparison is instructive. Tampa struggled for years to revive Ybor City, just as St. Petersburg wished for a downtown. Tampa succeeded, but at the cost of too many bars and too much revelry.

Tampa even attempted its own version of BayWalk, called Centro Ybor, but it has not flourished, precisely because of Ybor's reputation. Centro Ybor, somewhat desperately, even tried this advertising slogan to target nervous families: "No tattoo required." It was almost an admission of failure from the beginning.

This is not at all the case in St. Petersburg. A good retail project that is part of a good downtown revival has gotten to the point that it is drawing too many rowdy youths at night. If it is part of the conspiracy to say this can be managed, well, guilty.

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