Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rick Baker speaks to CL upon the publication of his new book, The Seamless City

Posted By on Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 7:55 AM

click to enlarge seamless-city

Last week Rick Baker's memoir regarding his 8 1/2 years serving as Mayor of St.Petersburg, The Seamless City, was published.

For the past 10 months Baker has transitioned nicely into the private sector, working for the University of South Florida as its first director of "innovation partnership."

CL bumped into him at Bob Buckhorn's inauguration as Tampa Mayor a week and a half ago, and spoke with him last Tuesday.  Here is the first excerpts from our conversation with Baker - we'll run the second part on Thursday.

CL: You write in the book that you cannot run a government like a business. Isn't that what (Florida Governor)Rick Scott is trying to do?

RB: It’s very early in his tenure, and at this point it’s kind of hard to make a judgment. He’s got a lot of tough issues, and I think he’s trying to attack them... I think in the book what I said was you can’t run it like a business. I also went on to write that there are business principles that you can apply to running a government, and I think for instance, performance measures trying to get fiscal discipline in there, putting a strategic plan together and identify what you’re trying to accomplish, and then go after that, and then measure whether you're accomplishing it going forward. So a large part of the difference between government and the private sector is you have Sunshine laws, public record laws, and you have a constituency that you have to deal with...I think it’s too early to say anything. I think the governor has a tough job.

CL: What did you think about his refusing to take federal funding for high speed rail?

RB: Well I think we have to continue to work in partnership on the transit issue , and I think we have to include both sides of the Bay to be honest with you, and I think we already are working on this: Pinellas is working on a transit plan, Hillsborough is working on a transit plan, and I think we have to make sure that they connect. When I was Mayor, when we had these discussions about transit, one of the things I was a proponent for is the bridge connector between the two areas, because I think that will make it a lot more valuable.

CL: You write that if you really wanted downtown to succeed, "we needed to pay to our strengths, and the Beach Drive waterfront was one of the city’s major strengths." You write that the real estate boom was a great opportunity .What did your government do to boost the area to where it is now ?

RB: You work with the builders as they come, and you try to make sure that you put a process together that is a process that makes sure that everybody follows the rules. But at the same time it’s not such a cumbersome process that it finds a disincentive for people to invest.…And that requires working with your permitting and your development team  which we have a very good one and we supported that as we went.  As far as playing to your strengths, that was really in the Beach Drive discussion, as these builders were coming in to Beach Drive, we worked very strongly to encourage each of the developers to put a sidewalk pavilion area with sidewalk café seating for each of these developments as they came, in order to take advantage and so, people could be outside and see it and be apart of it.You’re working with the folks as they’re coming along, you almost have to ask the question for each individual project, like the Progress Energy project? That was a very complicated project where we had to assemble a lot of ground leases and we had to work with the state to get the Secretary of State to allow us to move the cultural facilities, a grant lien, that was the old property on to the St. Pete College property, and then we sold the north end of the property to St. Pete College for the campus, and then we worked with Progress Energy on the south end, and then of course later American Stage...sol  you just have to be focused on on a project by project basis. And the Dali was also very complicated.

CL:What about the Tampa Bay Rays and their stadium situation?

RB: I am not getting in too much of that discussion of that because I try to respect the fact that we have only one mayor at a time..so I generally support the approach that Mayor Foster has taken,and I think has he has shown a willingness to talk with them about a new stadium, but he has not shown a willingness to release them from the obligation to keep that stadium in the City.

CL: Any thoughts about the Pier?

RB: I actually led the effort to get the funding in place now because ….the pilings are old, so we knew years ago that we would be arriving at this point  …so we put together a TIF (tax increment financing) project with the county, in order to be able to provide for the $50 million of funding that they now have...I think they’re trying to do it through a very open and public process.I think we do need something more dynamic there. I’m not convinced either way whether it should be torn down or kept up, I’m not convinced either way on that. What I do like is that some of the proposals that are focusing on the land side aspects of it, expanding the beach, making the park more interactive, maybe playgrounds, make that a real activity center, the land side -I think that’s a very interesting thought. I’m just going to be interested to see what designs come up for the end of the pier as well. My personal view is to reserve judgment until I see what proposals come up."

(Read our blog on Thursday for part 2 of this interview).

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