On Wednesday we published on this blog the first part of our interview with former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, upon the publication of his new book The Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor's Approach to Urban Revitalization that Could Work Anywhere.
We pick up the pace by asking Baker about what he called one of the main goals of his campaign and his time in office : improving the mostly African-American section of South St. Petersburg known as Midtown.
CL: You reveal in the book that when you first sat down with Goliath Davis after your election victory in March of 2001) who you had known for a long time, he shocked you by saying he was going to leave the Police Department. You told him to keep a lid on it, but the next time you saw him you werent about to try to persuade him to stay. And you suggested working together on a seamless city. What did you mean by that? In the book you write that you had never used that word before?RB: I dont recall using it, I may have before..the whole concept is that you should not have places in the city where because you cross into another neighborhood that youre not comfortable with where you are, where you feel youve got to lock the door, or its not safe, or, in the case of Midtown you dont have the amenities that everyone else has, like groceries stores and banks and libraries and not sidewalks and playgrounds and things like that -that youre not going to have every neighborhood the same .I mean some will have big houses near the water and some apartments and duplexes and thats okay, but we should always be working towards the situation where the neighborhoods are safe, that theyre good places for kids to grow up and that the have the neighborhood has pride in the resources it does have.
CL: A critical point in redeveloping Midtown was a grocery store. .. but you write that one day Go Davis sat down with you to say the finance plan for the store was not happening, and the only way it could go forward was for the city to provide a $1.5 million interest free loan. You slept on it. What was going on in your mind?
RB: On the one hand Im very prudent on spending taxpayer money, and I try to show a lot of fiscal restraint. On the other hand this was the centerpiece project for trying to bring Midtown back, and I think if we had not gone forward on the grocery store we simply would not have gone forward with any success in the Midtown effort and so ..it was a tough one for me, but you know as I thought about it, our state and our local governments often put incentives in place to try to stimulate economic activity, whether its for SRI or for Draper, or for whatever projects we're doing and this one was a key economic incentive for this particular type of neighborhood and I just dont think we were able to get the activity in a neighborhood that nobody has invested in decades unless we took a risk on this one, and I think it worked out.
CL:On Go Davis: .
RB: think he was critical in the Midtown initiative. He was a leader in the Midtown initiative, and if anybody is familiar with St. Pete, if you were to go back and look at Midtown 10 or 11 years ago and look at it at the end of our term, 9 years that he put into it, you would have to say that it was transformed significantly and he was the leader of that effort.
CL: Undoubtedly homeless became a bigger issue in your second term as Mayor - it became a pretty trying issue for you and the city-
RB: When youre Mayor it seems you have a trying thing every week. (laugh) So I dont know if I would categorize the severity. I would say it was a tough issue, it continues to be but its not near the issue that it was at that time....youll recall we had tents all over the city, and we had piles of things all over the city. You had people on all the street corners and everything else it was just a very tough issue, and the first thing you really had to create was this triage center and we wanted to do it quickly, because otherwise, its one thing to say we want them all off the street or whatever, but if theres no where for them to go what are you going to do? So you had to have Pinellas Hope and working with Catholic Charities was a critical, critical component to solving the long term - no you dont solve it - to manage a long term problem, and we had a great partnership and a lot of folks came, and a lot of businesses gave us money, and then we were able to tackle some of the other issues as we went on.