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Washington Examiner


How A Conservative Mayor Revitalized A Central City

June 20, 2011

By Rick Baker

First of a three-part series

Downtown is the heart of a city. It is the place where our crossroads come together, our common bond. Picture in your mind’s eye a city you have visited. You are probably not thinking of the suburbs, shopping malls or industrial parks—you are picturing the downtown area.

A downtown with a large commercial, office and residential base will contribute significantly to the tax rolls of the city with the effect of reducing the tax burden on residents in the city’s neighborhoods, helping residents throughout the city save money.

But downtown is more than just a revenue producer. The city center contains many of the community’s businesses, apartments, restaurants, parks, and museums. The major events typically occur there. When it works, downtown becomes the gathering place for the entire city and the surrounding areas.

Following the suburbanization of our country in the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of shopping malls, retail strip centers and secluded neighborhoods, we lost ground in our nation’s downtowns.

St. Petersburg was no exception. The city’s own newspaper regularly used the word “moribund” to describe the activity and vibrancy level of downtown. The city’s heart was sick!

A first step in turning around any part of a community is to inventory the assets presently in place. It is surprising to see how many good things already exist. These assets become the foundation around which to build.

The most important physical asset of downtown St. Petersburg 30 years ago was its waterfront park.

The desire to preserve a beautiful, open, active downtown waterfront park system would become a central ethic of the city to be reconfirmed over the next 10 years by preservation, referendums and additional park expansion.

By 2001, several blocks of downtown remained vacant. Few people lived downtown, and the activity level was still lacking, but progress had been made. With the foundation pieces in place, it was time to develop a plan for taking downtown to the next level.

In order to accomplish this objective we focused our efforts on a mission to:

    — Expand the number of recurring events along our waterfront park system and work to maintain those we had —with an emphasis on events that fill our downtown hotels.
    — Develop and expand the fixed activity generators downtown like medical complexes, marine research, education, general business, hotels, shopping, and restaurants. Support and expand the cultural amenities downtown, setting a goal of the city becoming the cultural center of Florida.
    — Make Beach Drive, along the park on the waterfront, a cafe and retail activity attractor and tie the district to the other downtown activity centers. Improve access to and around downtown. Focus on making downtown a desirable place to live and work to attract more residential living in the city center.

The people who decided to move downtown helped St. Petersburg hit a tipping point. During the first decade of the 2000s, we experienced the largest amount of construction downtown in our history: office, residential, hotel, retail, educational and cultural.

The total value of property in the Intown Tax Increment District, the largest district downtown, more than tripled. We began steering the downtown progress, not just fueling it, as the city had been required to do in prior decades.

It took decades for St. Petersburg’s downtown to reach this point. I call it our 25-year overnight success. Many contributed to the progress, and more work will need to be done to make it continue and grow, but the life-support equipment had been removed from the patient, and the prognosis was one that had been fought for by a generation of leaders: The city’s heart was strong.

Original Source:



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