Joe Henderson: 5 questions for St. Pete mayoral candidates in first debate
Skyline of St. Petersburg, Florida

St. Petersburg, Florida
The Rays and Tropicana Field, housing, Tallahassee overreach, and race relations are ripe topics for St. Pete's mayoral debate

Someone teleporting into St. Petersburg from the 1960s or ’70s probably would think there was a glitch in their time machine.

Long gone is the city’s tired image of “God’s Waiting Room.” St. Pete transformed into a thriving and, yes, hip place to live.

Today’s St. Pete has a vibrant downtown, restaurants, craft beer hangouts, impressive arts and culture scene, and pristine beaches, and more is on the way. The city exudes a vibe that says casual is cool, and fun is the word of the day.

Right now, the only direction for this city is up.

That can change in a hurry, though, under the wrong leadership, and that brings us to today’s topic: Tuesday’s first mayoral debate.

On Aug. 24, voters can choose between eight candidates to succeed term-limited Mayor Rick Kriseman. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote in that Primary, which is likely in a crowded field, the top two will face off in the General Election Nov. 2.

The debate begins at noon on tampabay.com/politics and Bay News 9, with a replay on Bay News 9 at 7 p.m. Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Steve Contorno and Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory are the moderators.

With that in mind, here are five of the essential questions the candidates should address.

Question 1: The Tampa Bay Rays have been adamant about their demand for a new stadium while also pursuing a split-season plan with Montreal. Under what circumstances would you support a new stadium for a team that would play only half its season here?

Why this is important: The Rays’ stadium saga has simmered and sputtered since 2005 when Stuart Sternberg assumed ownership of the team and immediately said Tropicana Field had to go.

And it does. There is near-unanimous agreement that the outdated eyesore is long past its prime (if it ever had one).

Negotiations turned into a walk down eternity road, though, going on forever and leading nowhere. So, Sternberg now pitches the unprecedented idea about playing half the season in the Tampa Bay area and half in Montreal.

Kriseman is adamant that if the Rays insist on that approach, they will have to build the Tampa Bay stadium without help from the city.

It’s not that simple, though. Sternberg’s Montreal plan faces many hurdles, and baseball’s traditional reluctance to move teams works in St. Pete’s favor.

OK, candidates, put on your thinking caps and solve this problem. Losing a well-regarded Major League Baseball franchise would be a major black eye for the city.

Question 2: What are your absolutely “must-have” requirements for the redevelopment of the Trop site?

Why this is important: This issue arguably is more important to St. Pete’s future than keeping the Rays in town. It has turned into a political hot potato the next Mayor will have to solve.

Kriseman chose two finalists from redevelopment companies bidding to turn the 86-acre Trop site into something new. However, with the Rays’ future in limbo and a new Mayor set to take over next January, the City Council jammed on the brakes.

Members say they won’t vote on this until after the election, which is the right decision. There’s no way the new Mayor wants to get stuck with the outgoing Mayor’s pick for a job that will affect the city’s future for multiple decades.

The project, which could cost north of $3 billion, could be a residential, cultural, and economic driver. But how much public money will be involved? Will developers price the proposed residences out of reach for many in the city?

What types of businesses will this attract? Will these jobs pay a living wage to workers? What will this project say to the rest of the world about St. Petersburg?

So many questions.

Question 3: Gov. Ron DeSantis has been aggressive about overriding mayors and local regulations. What would the new Mayor do to protect St. Petersburg’s autonomy on local issues?

Why this is important: The Governor effectively neutered Kriseman’s response on many COVID-19 fronts, including masks, vaccine passports, and restaurant seating.

He terminated local emergency orders and basically told mayors that he is in charge, not them. His controversial anti-riot bill threatened cities with fines for cutting police budgets.

It’s the type of top-down overreach DeSantis decries when it comes from Washington, but he aggressively wields the same bully club from Tallahassee.

What, if anything, can the new Mayor do about this, other than protest?

DeSantis is in full election mode for 2022 and might run for President in 2024. It’s reasonable to believe he’ll continue to govern by executive decree if it helps him win, whether it’s fair to the cities or not.

Question 4: Affordable housing is a growing crisis throughout Florida. What would you do to help alleviate the skyrocketing costs of home ownership or apartment rentals, which are incredible burdens for many young adults?

Why this is important: Rents are increasing so rapidly that it’s outstripping the ability of many people to cover the basic cost of living.

ABC Action News Tampa Bay reported that St. Pete had the fourth-highest rental rate increases of 100 cities across the country, according to a 2019 Apartment Guide study.

Redfin reported St. Petersburg home prices were up 27% compared to last year, selling for a median price of $304K. Nearly 40% of the homes sold above the list price. The average time a home stays on the market now is about eight days.

As Mayor, what can you do to ensure enough affordable housing is available to match the city’s growth? What are the potential consequences if lower-wage workers find they can’t afford to live in St. Petersburg?

Question 5: Like many cities, St. Petersburg has had its share of racial tensions. As Mayor, what will be your top priority in addressing the issue of equality and fairness?

Why this is important: The city has long-standing and well-reported racial problems and has attempted many solutions over the years. Officials in 2014 ordered mandatory sensitivity training in race relations.

Tensions between the Black community and the St. Pete Police Department traditionally run high, leading the city to take action. Last year, police started a new way to respond to 911 calls.

The department now sends a social service agency instead of a police officer to respond to non-violent situations. That’s a great step forward. But it leaves even more questions.

As Mayor, how would you build on that? There has been discussion about dismantling I-175 between Tropicana Field and the neighborhoods to the south. Many see the short span of highway as an unofficial dividing line between Black and White St. Petersburg.

As part of the Trop redevelopment, would you support leveling that roadway in the name of civic unity?

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.



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