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St. Petersburg mayoral candidates discuss climate change, affordable housing

The candidates addressed some of the key challenges facing the city at a forum hosted by the St. Pete Catalyst, the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club and Eckerd College.
St. Petersburg City Hall. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
St. Petersburg City Hall. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jun. 29

ST. PETERSBURG — Eight candidates for mayor of St. Petersburg talked about their plans for the city’s future and their views on key issues, from affordable housing to climate change, at a Monday evening forum.

The candidates, who range from government officials to an undergraduate political science student, often agreed on the nature of the big challenges the city faces. But at times they disagreed on how best to tackle them.

The forum took place at the Isla Del Sol Clubhouse ballroom, and its main sponsors were the St. Pete Catalyst, the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club and Eckerd College. Livestreamed on the Catalyst’s website, the event included all participants in the race except write-in candidate Michael Levinson.

Housing and development

The candidates had a variety of plans to help to more residents afford housing.

Many laid out strategies for making more housing available. Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch emphasized density, mixed-use zoning, subsidies and the ability for developers to quickly plan and get permits for projects.

City Council member Robert Blackmon’s “multifaceted approach” includes buying condos and giving them to residents who make up to 80% of the area’s median income, as well as eliminating permit fees for affordable housing projects.

Blackmon noted the city could give low-income residents mortgages in existing cheap housing to promote homeownership.

“To me, true equity, racial or otherwise, is through financial equity,” Blackmon said.

Former City Council member and state Representative Wengay Newton said the city should do more to teach residents financial literacy and help them find jobs that pay well enough for them to afford homes.

On the subject of the St. Petersburg’s historic charm, City Council member Darden Rice said the city could grow without demolishing the buildings that give it character. She suggested adaptive reuse: preserving facades while letting building owners renovate interiors.

“I am a big-time historical preservationist,” Rice said.

Restauranteur Pete Boland said St. Petersburg should have standards for architecture and prepare people to start businesses so the city keeps its “entrepreneurial spirit.” But, he added that the city should respect property rights.

“I don’t want to get too carried away on historic preservation, because I think that has a lot of consequences that we’re uncomfortable with,” Boland said.

Climate change and the future after COVID-19

Climate change threatens St. Petersburg, the candidates agreed.

“Within my lifetime, there are parts of St. Pete that might not exist anymore,” University of South Florida St. Petersburg political science student Michael Ingram said.

Blackmon, Boland, Ingram and small business owner Marcile Powers all suggested reinforcing the coastline through natural measures like planting mangrove trees. Torry Nelson said the city should look at building seawalls and restoring beaches.

The city “can’t say we won’t develop anywhere” in the Coastal High Hazard Area, Welch said. But he and Rice each said the city has to be intentional in allowing new development.

Rice and Welch also agreed that the city’s economic development strategy — which focuses on five sectors, from data analytics to creative arts and design — remains relevant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Newton and Powers disagreed; Powers said the public should have more chances to vote on how the city grows in the future.

The candidates threw out different ideas for how the city can promote education and economic development in the future. Blackmon suggested revitalizing the Pinellas County Science Center; Rice said the city should help make two-year and four-year training degrees available to everyone; and Welch and Newton each emphasized STEM education.

The candidates were asked about about policing and the future of the Tampa Bay Rays and Tropicana Field, issues they discussed at last week’s debate, hosted by the Tampa Bay Times and Spectrum Bay News 9. Besides sharing their personal stories, the candidates discussed hurricane preparedness and funding for the city’s sewer system, among other issues.