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  1. Florida Politics

Mayor Kriseman reaches out to businesses in effort to cut red tape

Brigitte Whitaker, center, owner of the Brew D Licious coffee shop at 667 Central Ave., chats with a customer Friday. She told the mayor about the frustration, time and expense of battling red tape before she was cleared to open the business.
Published Feb. 22, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — When Mayor Rick Kriseman visited Brigitte Whitaker's coffee shop on Central Avenue this week, he got an earful from the new proprietor.

Whitaker, 54, said it took her almost three months to jump through all the city's hurdles before she was cleared in February to open Brew D Licious at 667 Central Ave.

She told the mayor that codes workers classified the shop as a restaurant — although she doesn't cook food. The designation forced her to spend more than $5,000 to add a grease trap and second bathroom. Now she said she's been told she needs a new permit to clean the grease trap, which isn't used.

"Taking this fight to the mayor isn't about me," said Whitaker, a former corporate recruiter. "It's about helping the other people trying to open a business."

On the campaign trail, Kriseman frequently said the city rolls out red carpet for big businesses and red tape for small ones. Since taking over City Hall seven weeks ago, Kriseman is keeping a pledge to hear concerns from business owners.

On Wednesday, he visited business owners along Central Avenue.

A review of his weekly calendar also showed numerous meetings with politicians, neighborhood leaders and business owners. It's one way Kriseman said he's learning about the issues facing the city.

It's also another sign that he manages differently from his predecessor.

At this time last year, former Mayor Bill Foster's calendar was filled with meetings about departmental budgets. Kriseman's calendar lists the meetings but only if he "is available." Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin's calendar is filled with the line-item reviews.

Kriseman also holds weekly meetings with City Council Chairman Bill Dudley. Council members frequently criticized Foster for not meeting regularly with them.

Dudley called the 30-minute sessions "productive" and predicted they would get more informative as Kriseman gains more insight into running Florida's fourth-largest city.

"It's a good thing," Dudley said. "It's important we're on the same page. So far, he's been upfront with me."

Also on Kriseman's calendar was Dr. Kevin Hirsch, who met with the mayor on Feb. 12 to exchange visions for one of downtown's premier properties. The St. Petersburg trauma surgeon is working to buy the former downtown headquarters of bankrupt Universal Health Care on Central Avenue.

"You have to know where you're at," Hirsch said. "He was more receptive than I expected."

Larry Biddle, director of LGBT Welcome and Youth Center Development (Tampa Bay), met with Kriseman and Tomalin on Feb. 13 to ask for money to help convert a Central Avenue home into an LGBT welcome center. Biddle said it would be the nation's third behind Miami and Seattle.

With no money available, Biddle said Kriseman asked how the city could help promote the center before thousands of tourists invade in June for the St. Pete Pride festival.

"He's interested in the LGBT community," Biddle said, adding that he wouldn't have requested a meeting with Foster since he didn't support LGBT issues.

After her meeting with Kriseman, Whitaker seemed pleased with the mayor's response.

"I don't think it's going to happen tomorrow," she said about changes to small business regulations. "He was receptive and listened."

Kriseman also reiterated his pledge to make it easier for small businesses to open.

"We're here to help address their situations," said Kriseman, standing near Jessica Eilerman, his small business liaison. "We're not aware of all these issues."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter @markpuente.

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