Rick Kriseman reflects on his eight years as St. Pete mayor | Column

Tampa Bay Times
Tampa Bay Times
Kh’Amani Dennis, 10, speaks with Mayor-elect Ken Walsh while Mayor Rick Kriseman looks on during the Gas Plant/Laurel Park Neighborhood Reunion Lot 4 of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021. Dennis was one of the student artists who assisted with the new mural at Campbell Park Recreation Center. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

In a few days, I will leave St. Petersburg’s City Hall for the final time as mayor, proud of all we accomplished and with great confidence in the city’s future. I leave with a full heart, grateful for having had the honor and privilege of serving the best citizens in America’s best city, our Sunshine City.

Nearly nine years ago, in a video announcing my candidacy for mayor, I said, “…without vision and forward-looking leadership, the positive changes that have occurred in the past will become a thing of the past.” I explained that the job of mayor isn’t to maintain the status quo, but to solve the intractable problems, to be proactive and innovative and bold. I pledged to listen, learn, lead and move us forward. I believe I did.

Later, upon being sworn-in as St. Petersburg’s 53rd mayor, I declared that we were on the cusp, that this was our opportunity, our unique moment in time, to advance beyond our reputation for our parks and the arts to become a truly competitive 21st century city that touts a diverse economy. Our Grow Smarter economic development strategy, and the results it yields, shows we’ve done that.

I said we would become a daring city and a beacon of progress, that the doors of St. Pete would be flung wide open for all. Our new vision that we would become “a city of opportunity where the sun shines on all who come to live, work, and play,” would come to inform my every decision and guide my administration’s every action.

The number one priority for every mayor is public health and safety. That’s why I took COVID-19 so seriously from the start. It’s why I took on a president and a governor who decided to play politics with people’s lives. I make no apologies for standing up for St. Pete, the rights of local government and for working to protect the well-being of our people and our economy.

Our quality of life, loving where we live, enjoying a new St. Pete Pier or other amenities, begins and ends with being healthy and safe.

Despite the troubling uptick in homicides that has plagued St. Pete and cities throughout America during this pandemic, violent crime reached an all-time low on my watch. This is a testament to world-class leadership, a return to community-oriented policing, and the relationships our police officers forged throughout our neighborhoods. Perhaps most important, the men and women of the St. Petersburg Police Department are finally able to work and train in state-of-the-art buildings. They were given the resources to do their jobs well, to protect and serve.

Our entire city has benefited from the remaking of our police department and our efforts to tackle the root causes and social determinants of crime, but this progress has been felt most in parts of south St. Pete.

Since the implementation of our comprehensive urban affairs strategy, African-American poverty dropped to an all-time low. We focused on investing in and building up people at least as much as we built up places, and it’s working. And as I wrote earlier this year, the seeds we planted in south St. Pete won’t all yield an immediate harvest, and that’s okay. That’s by design. Sustained success, not quick fixes, was the goal, and I couldn’t be more excited about what has unfolded and what’s yet to come. For example, our historic 22nd Street South, known as “The Deuces,” has come to life in recent years, but given the attention and public and private investments of money, labor and love, the corridor is poised for a true renaissance replete with new housing and commerce. It’s a renaissance that should be further catalyzed and complemented by the redevelopment of the nearby Tropicana Field site.

Last month, after more than five years of public engagement, visioning and unprecedented diligence, I selected Midtown Development to redevelop the Tropicana Field site, and to plan to redevelop it with or without a baseball stadium. They agreed to both scenarios, and agreed to satisfy an exhaustive list of guiding principles that will serve to honor our past as we pursue our brightest future.

There are those who seek to slow this already slow and methodical process down. They see no urgency. They believe our 13-year wait for clarity from the Rays should continue to take priority over fulfilling overdue promises. They do not subscribe to the notion that justice delayed is justice denied. And in this case, justice means opportunity. Jobs. Affordable homes. Green space. It means recreating a community with a sense of place, and a sense of belonging.

It’s time to move forward, and it is past time for the Rays to decide if they want to be a part of this exciting, generational redevelopment project in one of America’s most vibrant downtowns. Throughout my time in office, we did all we could to accommodate the Rays organization. From allowing them to look around Tampa Bay for a new stadium site, to inviting them into the process to redevelop the current one. We’ve negotiated, then negotiated again and again. The City of St. Petersburg approached every negotiation with the seriousness this issue deserves.

But now, like everyone else in Tampa Bay, and maybe even Canada, we just want clarity. Our citizens, business owners, those who seek to do business here, and fans of the Rays, deserve clarity. My administration, along with my Pinellas County partner, came to the table ready to determined to reach a deal. But deals don’t get done unless both parties come to the table for that purpose. It is my hope that a resolution to this issue will finally come during the Mayor Kenneth Welch administration, the fourth mayoral administration with which the Rays organization will negotiate.

While the Tropicana Field site and the future of the Rays may be the most high-profile issues my successor will contend with, continuing to protect St. Pete from a changing climate and rising seas will be the most important. We’ve made many advancements. As it relates to mitigation, solar energy now abounds in St. Pete, from the St. Pete Pier to the new police station to City Hall to thousands of homes and businesses in between. We’ve never been cleaner or greener. As it relates to adaptation, new, higher seawalls dot our waterfront and must continue to do so. Our infrastructure is vastly improved following hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades, and plans are finally in place to address our entire integrated wastewater and stormwater system. Difficult and expensive work remains, but as this is the issue of our time, I trust that City Hall and the citizens it serves will meet the moment.

Mayor-elect Welch will inherit other challenges, such as housing affordability, the deteriorating downtown marina and the need for a new Municipal Services Center for our city employees. Fortunately, substantial progress has been made on each of these fronts. Our comprehensive “Housing For All, From All” plan is making a dent, with nearly 1,000 new workforce and affordable units coming online. A smart plan to save taxpayer money and preserve the marina as a public asset (meaning we still own it) while transferring the rebuilding and management of it to an experienced private operator — as we have done with each of our marinas — is ready for a vote of the City Council. Likewise, council members can stop throwing good money after bad by voting for the redevelopment of the current MSC building and construction of a new one, across the street from City Hall and the future Second District Court of Appeal building.

Lastly, after more than two decades of public service, countless remarks and speeches from the council dais, the floor of the Florida House of Representatives, and behind the mayoral podium, all that’s left to say is thank you. Leading the City of St. Petersburg, working to make peoples’ lives better, working alongside our community to recognize, uplift, and celebrate every person who calls St. Pete home has been the honor of my life. May the sun always shine here.

Rick Kriseman is the outgoing mayor of St. Petersburg.

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