St. Petersburg faring well as Mayor Rick Kriseman departs

The two-term mayor ran a city that is unrecognizable from when he took office in 2014. What’s next?
Mayor Rick Kriseman makes remarks on the city’s waste water management system, at Clam Bayou Nature Preserve as he looks back on the investments and progress made to infrastructure during his administration, a stop on his Faring Well Tour, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Mayor Rick Kriseman makes remarks on the city’s waste water management system, at Clam Bayou Nature Preserve as he looks back on the investments and progress made to infrastructure during his administration, a stop on his Faring Well Tour, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 2, 2022|Updated Jan. 3, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Rick Kriseman stood before a crowd and belted out the oldie hit Hooked on a Feeling on the karaoke machine at Cocktail St. Pete.

The November night was one of 14 stops on his 2½-month “Faring Well Tour,” during which the mayor marked the end of eight years in the job. It was his way, he said, of thanking the city for the opportunity to lead.

In many ways, St. Petersburg is hitting its stride just as Kriseman prepares to depart this week. Downtown is bustling, with condos rising, public art installations twinkling and new attractions luring visitors. Property values are rising sharply and city coffers are growing with them.

“People feel good about St. Pete,” the 59-year-old mayor said. “There’s this energy, this vibe that’s palpable here in the city right now.”

Kriseman leaves feeling good about the role he has played in helping make it happen.

Among his achievements: replacing the downtown waterfront Pier after more than a decade of public acrimony and planning and building a new St. Petersburg police headquarters scrapped by his predecessor over cost and funding concerns.

He hopes, too, that he’ll be remembered for investing in people.

“I’m hoping that my legacy will be that when people look back, they’ll say that I shifted the culture of the city to one that was focused more on equity, and trying to lift everyone up,” Kriseman said.

Among his challenges: A series of massive sewage spills midway through his first term overshadowed his agenda and nearly derailed him from winning reelection. Not all parts of the city have enjoyed new investment, particularly some of the predominantly Black communities south of Central Avenue, as rising values have made homes less affordable. And despite his pledge to forge a resolution, the Tampa Bay Rays appear more likely than ever to leave town even as long-promised redevelopment takes place all around Tropicana Field but not yet on the stadium’s 86 acres.

A booming economy helped keep the wind at his back.

“He was able to accomplish a great deal because the stars just lined up for him,” said Bill Foster, whom Kriseman defeated in a bitter and costly 2013 mayoral campaign.

It’s the economy

Kriseman took office in 2014 as a pro-development, pro-business Democrat in a city still shaking off the Great Recession. Under his watch, it would grow younger and bluer, and maybe a little more hip, with its ubiquitous murals, warehouses turned into microbreweries and walkable main streets crowded with diners.

The trends that would propel the city during his tenure were already underway, to be sure: Investors were buying in-town properties and either fixing them up to flip or selling to people who would build something new. The economy was recovering on a steady trajectory, and commercial redevelopment was taking off. Millennials infused the city with an artsy, laid-back vibe and turned downtown into a place to eat, drink and hang out.

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Ever-climbing tax revenues enabled Kriseman to adjust when costs nearly doubled to $93 million to remove the old inverted pyramid at the Pier and replace it with a 26-acre Pier District. He was able to rekindle plans for a new police headquarters even though the costs ballooned to $78.5 million. The Pier District in particular represented a once-in-a-generation remake of the downtown waterfront.

“I get goosebumps every time I go out there,” Kriseman said. “I think what I love the most about the Pier is when I see families out there. You didn’t see that at the old pier.”

Kriseman says he benefited from more than good economic timing. In an interview last month, he said he felt like the city was stuck in neutral when he took over.

“We weren’t a city who told our story about what makes us special,” he said. “So we were a secret. Nobody knew about us. And that was something that I thought needed to be changed.” And so, he put marketing on the front burner.

Kriseman also leaned into the city’s blossoming diversity: He embraced LGBTQ rights and the biggest Pride parade south of Atlanta. He supported the Black Lives Matter protests and declared racism a public health crisis.

As reports highlighted St. Petersburg’s vulnerability to rising sea levels caused by climate change, he pledged that St. Petersburg would be the first southeastern U.S. city to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. He faced criticism for supporting efforts to allow more dense development in coastal areas, but said it was to discourage investors from gobbling up cheaper land elsewhere, worsening the city’s affordable housing shortage.

The mayor also installed an African-American police chief, Anthony Holloway, scrapping finalists from a 2014 national search to choose the Clearwater police chief. Mayor-elect Ken Welch said he “loves him” and is keeping Holloway around for his administration.

“I think I’m the first mayor probably in 20, 30 years, who hasn’t had to worry about his police department,” Kriseman said. “What he has done is miraculous in recreating, redefining, reimagining this police department and changing it to become, I think, the best in the state of Florida, if not the country.”

The sewage crisis

The “Faring Well Tour” took Kriseman to the Clam Bayou Nature Preserve on Nov. 15. There, he reflected on the darkest days of his administration.

In August 2015, heavy rains led to a sewage discharge in the bayou. Record downpours, aging wastewater systems and his administration’s decisions resulted in the release of a billion gallons of wastewater.

The crisis was set into motion in 2011, when the City Council voted to close the Albert Whitted sewage plant. The Kriseman administration carried out the closure in 2015, leaving the city with three sewage treatment plants that failed to keep up with the storms that followed.

A state report blamed the city’s two-decade failure to upgrade its aging pipes and Kriseman’s decision not to reopen the Whitted sewage plant to create treatment capacity. The mayor blamed the bad advice he got from former city officials. Altogether, the city released 100 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay and 100 million gallons into neighborhoods, and pumped 800 million gallons underground.

The mayor recalled that back then, he had to choose between raw sewage backing up into people’s toilets and homes and flowing down streets, or discharging partially treated wastewater into the bay. The administration picked the latter.

Kriseman said it wasn’t a crisis, but a path to progress. The city was put under a state consent order that called for it to pay $326 million to fix its sewage system. He said it’s estimated that it could cost the city a total of $3 billion over the next 20 years.

“We’re not done yet,” he told the crowd at Clam Bayou. “This is not an announcement of ‘mission accomplished.’ This is an announcement of a mission that is being advanced every single day.”

Mayor Rick Kriseman listens as Deputy Mayor Dr. Kanika Tomalin introduces him to deliver remarks on the city’s wastewater management system at Clam Bayou Nature Preserve, a stop on his Faring Well Tour, as he looks back on the investments and progress made to infrastructure during his administration, on Nov. 15 in St. Petersburg.
Mayor Rick Kriseman listens as Deputy Mayor Dr. Kanika Tomalin introduces him to deliver remarks on the city’s wastewater management system at Clam Bayou Nature Preserve, a stop on his Faring Well Tour, as he looks back on the investments and progress made to infrastructure during his administration, on Nov. 15 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The ray in the room

If the sewage crisis was unexpected, his other major challenge was fully anticipated.

In his first campaign, Kriseman supporters battered Foster over his inability to negotiate a way to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay when the team’s agreement to play at Tropicana Field expires in 2027.

Eight years later, Kriseman hasn’t fared any better.

The Rays have a plan to split their season between Montreal and Tampa Bay — likely in an Ybor City stadium.

Kriseman said he did the best he could, negotiating a 2015 deal that gave the Rays three years to look for a stadium site in Tampa, which their Trop lease forbids. He expressed confidence that St. Petersburg could top any deal the team found in Tampa. If the team stays, it would also share in the revenue of a redeveloped Trop.

“Mayor Welch will be the fourth mayor in St. Petersburg they’ve dealt with,” he said. “They’ve dealt with two in Tampa — six mayors since they’ve been trying to have a deal for a stadium.”

“You have to start asking, where’s the breakdown? On which side? If you’ve gone through six mayors, is it on the government side or is it on the other side?”

Asked to comment on Kriseman’s remarks, team officials said Kriseman mischaracterized their demands.

“We have remained quiet as it pertains to this mayor’s words and actions,” Rays spokesperson Rafaela Amador-Fink said. “We will continue to do so through the remaining days of his term.”

Kriseman has long pledged to finalize plans to redevelop the Trop site, saying it is the biggest and most important project yet.

On Dec. 2, with 34 days left in office and while the council was meeting, the mayor held a news conference at Tropicana Field to announce his pick for a developer to oversee the remaking of the property. Welch has made no promises to honor the choice.

Kriseman says he was just following the process and doing his job. Welch, he said, will oversee the redevelopment effort.

“What that project looks like when it’s finished 10, 20, 30 years from now, will probably be very different from our expectation of what it looks like today,” he said.

Where the sun shines?

When Kriseman first ran for mayor, Gwendolyn Reese did not support him.

The president of the African American Heritage Association and a lifelong resident, Reese said she then saw how he hired women, and women of color, to top city positions. She saw how he promoted Pride flags, declared racism a public health crisis and called for a study of structural racism.

The study, released late this year, described systemic racism in the city as pervasive and called for reparations in the form of funding for affordable housing and economic investment in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

“I can unequivocally say that he has done more to advance race equity, and something that’s so simple, so significant, is that he did not hesitate to say the words that needed to be said,” she said. “I think he has set the bar for the coming administration and any other administration that follows him.”

Others say St. Petersburg south of Central Avenue lacks important amenities, such as a grocery store to serve Black neighborhoods. Tangerine Plaza, the city-owned strip mall at 22nd Street S and 18th Avenue, lost its second grocery store under Kriseman in 2017 and sits at the heart of a food desert. Negotiations to bring in a new grocer have taken months.

“I don’t just want to stick somebody there for a year or two or even three and say, see, look what I did and then two, three years, they’re gone and the city’s in the same place,” Kriseman said. “I believed, and I still believe, you’re better off taking your time even if it means you take longer to find the right fit and then do the deal.”

Affordable housing is another persistent problem. Across the city, lifelong residents living on low incomes are being priced out of their homes.

Carter G. Woodson African American Museum executive director Terri Lipsey-Scott said she wishes the Black community had benefitted more from the strong economy that buoyed Kriseman and the city’s more prosperous areas.

African-American residents “thought that we might’ve achieved more from the perspective of housing and business opportunities,” she said, but that didn’t bring more “gas stations and grocery stores and the like” to those neighborhoods.

“The sun shines on everyone, and a lot of folks were never able to bask in the sun,” she said. “We are enjoying the greatest wealth and economic boom the city has had, but not everyone has benefitted from that economic boom.”

What’s next?

Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn thinks there’s life after City Hall for Kriseman.

He’d know, as another two-term Democrat who served in the strong mayor system in Florida. They got along well.

“He and I are brothers in arms,” Buckhorn said. “It’s been a pure joy for me to have him over there. The results in terms of the transformation of both of our cities speak volumes about how cooperation trumps parochialism.”

Buckhorn said Kriseman could return to the field of law (he was a personal injury attorney) or use his municipal experience to advise companies that do business with local governments.

“He’s still a young man, I think he’s got a bright future whether he chooses to run again or not,” Buckhorn said.

Kriseman won’t say what he plans to do next. He hasn’t entered the race to replace Democrat Charlie Crist in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, as has been rumored in political circles, but has until June 2022 to decide. He could try a run at statewide office, such as attorney general in 2022, or seek a position in President Joe Biden’s administration.

“He wouldn’t want to go back to the Legislature,” Foster said. “He’s been an executive too long, he’s been a boss for too long. You kind of want to be an executive. A cabinet position. Something high up there. Washington.”

Kriseman says he hasn’t figured out his future but is adamant he’s not running for anything. He and his wife, Kerry, are empty nesters with two children off at college and graduate school.

“It’s going to be hard to follow this up,” he said. “I love this job. I love this community.”