St. Petersburg City Council candidates Robert Blackmon and John Hornbeck squared off in a debate Wednesday at a Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon.
Despite the two candidates sharing a lot of similar ideas on things like affordable housing and the environment, the single-district debate allowed voters to spot differences in policy ideas.
One of the most significant disparities between the two is their position on keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Pete. Both want that to happen, but Hornbeck has stronger views on how to make it occur — which may result in some pushback from voters.
Hornbeck wants the city to split the cost with the team to build a new stadium at the waterfront Al Lang Field site. His proposal calls for a 20,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof that both the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Rays would share.
What makes the pitch controversial is it assumes public financing for a new stadium. Some voters express willingness to go that route, but (like almost anything), others have no desire to see taxpayer dollars fund several hundred million dollars for a sports team facility.
The plan also expects the Rays would want to play baseball at Al Lang.
Owner Stu Sternberg has said he’s willing to entertain the idea; because the Rays now own the Tampa Bay Rowdies, they control the site. However, the context of that controversy is limited to playing a partial season or Spring Training at that site.
Further, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman said if the team decides to split its season between St. Pete and Montreal, the city won’t fork over a dime of public money.
While Blackmon and Hornbeck disagree on that particular strategy, they mostly agreed on what to do with the Tropicana Field site.
Blackmon said he supports the city’s existing site master plan, which includes plans both with and without a stadium, including plans to establish kayaking along Booker Creek, a new hotel and retail space and a convention center. Hornbeck agreed. Both want to see the site used for new affordable housing and jobs.
Blackmon added that the city should consider in its plans to include an African American history museum to honor the communities displaced when Tropicana Field was first constructed.
Both candidates also diverged on solutions for bringing a grocery store — or some other type of market — to provide fresh, healthy and affordable food in south St. Pete. A Sweetbay formerly served the area, later replaced by a Walmart (both since shuttered).
Hornbeck supports using some form of bus or shuttle service to provide transportation to residents to get to grocery stores outside the district. He recognized that the “food desert” issue is a major problem for the community but cautioned the city couldn’t force businesses to operate there.
Blackmon rejected the shuttle idea.
“I just don’t think we should have to force people out of their neighborhoods to get groceries,” he said.
Instead, Blackmon pointed to affordable housing and better access to jobs as solutions. If more people live in the neighborhood, it drives demand; if those residents have living-wage jobs, they can better afford groceries.
Each candidate also weighed in on two hot topics in the city — the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project and the city’s complete streets plan.
Hornbeck answered vaguely, saying the city should weigh the needs of those who drive versus those who walk, ride a bike or use transit. It’s a conversation he said he’s continuing with voters.
Blackmon mostly supported the BRT project, noting the city has long had an east-to-west transit corridor deficiency. On complete streets, though, he was split, agreeing with having sidewalk continuity throughout the city but concerned about adding bike lanes to major thoroughfares like Dr. ML King Jr. Street.
The two candidates are running for District 1, which includes west St. Pete.
Because they are the only two candidates in the race, Blackmon and Hornbeck will face each other on the Nov. 5 ballot. Three other City Council races will be on a primary vote Aug. 27.
The winner of the District 1 race replaces term-limited Charlie Gerdes.