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The BayWalk brouhaha

It would have been easy for city officials to overreact to a brawl at BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg Friday night, but their more measured response was appropriate. A fight between two teenagers in the courtyard spilled onto nearby streets and ended with the arrest of seven adults and seven juveniles, most for disorderly conduct. The fracas was troubling, though rare, and coincided with a monthly "first Friday" celebration that drew a large adult crowd to Central Avenue, and a sizeable teen gathering at the nearby entertainment complex.

Mayor Rick Baker said he would provide a larger police presence at future events to keep the order, but otherwise would look for sensible ways to manage downtown crowds. "We have an issue because we have such success," Baker said, noting that hundreds of events are held downtown each year, nearly all without serious incident.

Managers of BayWalk, which has become the unofficial downtown center, have wisely refused to make any hasty decisions that would run off teens who behave themselves. Already, unaccompanied children must adhere to reasonable restrictions. After 9 p.m. they are not allowed on the complex's second level where alcohol is served, and everyone must be out of the courtyard by 11 p.m.

"We're a family place, but we're also a place for singles and for teens," said Craig Sher, president and CEO of the Sembler Group, which owns BayWalk.

That's the right goal, but it shouldn't stop city officials and downtown merchants from addressing the problems that arose Friday night. Baker has called for community forums with groups that represent all of the interested parties, including the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, which can speak for business concerns, and the Boys and Girls Club, which oversees a variety of teen activities.

That is a good start, and it is more likely to succeed if all voices are heard. One possible solution is to provide more activities for teenagers, although the city has to proceed thoughtfully because officially sanctioned events may not appeal to teen interests. BayWalk and other downtown businesses should consider rules that encourage good behavior without spoiling a good time.

St. Petersburg isn't alone in needing to find a place for teenagers to hang out, and every vibrant downtown has to learn how to deal with crowds. Yet there is a key element in all of this that is largely beyond the control of city officials: responsible parenting. Some parents apparently use BayWalk as a babysitter, dropping their kids off with little or no oversight and coming back hours later to pick them up. Unfortunately, parents who care so little about their children's well-being are not likely to be the ones paying attention to the problem.

That leaves it to community leaders to propose solutions that offer a safe but welcoming downtown for everyone to enjoy.

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