“I get three compliments, or at least people think they’re giving me a compliment and I guess they are,” says St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. “People will say, ‘You’re better-looking in person than on TV. You’re not as fat as you appear. And you’re a lot more fun than I expected.’”
The fact that some of Fosters’ constituents still have such cloudy notions of him is not exactly surprising. His wit is so dry that it’s not always clear when he’s making a joke. His communication style, particularly when it comes to explaining his plans to City Council, has been criticized as unnecessarily secretive. And the current tough economic climate doesn’t exactly lend itself toward light-heartedness.
“We deal on a day-to-day basis with such a heavy subject matter,” he says, “that I think a lot of people don’t get to see that side of me.”
CL sat down with the mayor in his scrupulously neat office on a recent Friday to learn more about the policies and personality of the man running Florida’s fourth largest city. [Read a complete transcript of our interview here.] A whiteboard sits on an easel to the left of his desk; it’s covered in bullet points, lists, and topics — his plan for the upcoming year. Projects already in progress are in green, new additions in red.
It’s a “light” day today, he says — typically, his days start around 6 a.m. and last at least 12 hours — but he’s already done two early-morning radio interviews (including a spot on WFLZ for host MJ’s last show on-air), he has meetings the rest of the day, and he’s going to an opening for the new St. Pete branch of Wood Fired Pizza. After some family time with wife Wendy and their two kids, he’ll spend the evening spinning tunes from the ’50s as a celebrity DJ for a fundraiser at the Gulfport Casino. First things first: He does not live in Tampa Bay.
“No, the fish live in Tampa Bay,” says Foster. “We live in St. Petersburg.”
That distinction is important to him; he even made it the subject of a skit he wrote for Tampa Bay Plays’ 60-second plays event in January at The Studio@620.“It’s just retaining your identity at a time where the world doesn’t necessarily know you exist,” he explains.
A fourth-generation St. Petersburg native and a 1981 Northeast High grad, he comes by his civic-mindedness naturally. His great-grandparents opened a general store on Central Avenue at the turn of the last century, and his grandfather was one of the founding members of the Suncoasters, a local civic organization that began in 1956. He went away to college — Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama — but he can tell when someone knows him from his early days in St. Pete.
“When they call me Billy,” Foster says, “I know that it’s pre-college.”
The mayor takes his coffee black. He developed the habit in college.
“I was poor, and I decided I could live without sugar and cream,” he explains. “So it was an acquired taste.”Given St. Petersburg’s $10 million deficit, he’s having to cut a lot of sugar and cream out of the city’s diet, too. But in recent years, he’s seemed more conscious of the amenities that give the city its special character — what St. Pete-based urban theorist Peter Kageyama calls “love letters,” the things that make you fall in love with a city.
Olga Bof, founder of the Keep St. Petersburg Local business coalition, has seen a shift in Foster over the last two years. At the start of his administration, she approached him about her idea for a children’s bookstore; he loved it, but offered no resources.
“He said, ‘I’m a Florida guy and I’m not an arts guy,’” remembers Bof. “Then there was a national shift towards localism. He read Peter Kageyama’s book [For the Love of Cities] and he gets it now.”
Since then, says Bof, he has been supportive of her efforts to nurture local businesses, including a bonus to city employees that can only be spent at local businesses.
Foster recognizes that Bill Foster two years ago would’ve probably preferred a baseball game to orchestra tickets. “Maybe I’m like a fine wine that’s matured, I don’t know.” In addition to Kageyama’s book, he cites Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class as an influence.
“I bought into [the arts] as an economic driver, as a sense of pride for the city, as a job creator,” Foster says. “But Peter takes it a step further.”
Kageyama says mayors are emblematic of the bond between citizens and their city, and that they must nurture the je ne sais quoi that makes a place unique.
So what are Foster’s “love letters?”
“When the Sunshine City Band is playing the day after Thanksgiving, and when thousands of people are just waiting for the lights to come on,” he muses. “It’s the green grass of Vinoy Park, it’s someone like Olga, Free Hug Day, a street closure for the 600 Block arts [festival].”
Adrian Wyllie was not mentioned. He is running for Governor.
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