Mayor Bill Foster answered questions about his philosophy of governance, city services and the Rays while highlighting his discomfort with the press to a group of mostly journalism students in the CAC on September 1.
The core of his governing strategy is the broken window philosophy, Foster said.
The “broken window” is “sweating the small stuff,” which has the effect of tackling the cause of civic problems rather than the symptoms, he said. Code violations, like a broken window, have a tendency to transform into neglect and disrepair, and the same applies to crime.
When the city improved lighting and removed overgrowth at Coquina Key Park, the crime rate decreased, he said. The police are “going after the causes of crime,” and as a result, “crime numbers over a five year index are going down,” Foster said.
“The broken window philosophy does work,” he said.
Foster said his goal is to turn neighborhoods around and change lives, especially in Midtown and south St. Petersburg, which he referred to as “goldmines” for economic development. Currently the area is underserved by businesses and services, Foster said, and the city recently petitioned and saved a South St. Petersburg post office from closure.
“He acknowledged that there is a disconnect between users and the government,” said student Lyndsey Collins, who asked the mayor about resources for minority business owners.
One of the mayor’s goals is to revitalize “the deuces” on 22nd Street S, a historic African-American district in south St. Petersburg. The “neighborhoods appear to be in disrepair,” the mayor said. He would like to see greater development in the area and more minority-owned businesses.
Foster pointed to the Business Assistance Center, which aids small businesses entrepreneurs; the Doorway Scholars program, which targets young students to motivate toward academic success; and the Paris Project, a street-by-street neighborhood revitalization program as steps in the process to improve the Midtown and South districts.
A Business Assistance Center representative is essential to success, Foster said, and “doesn’t cost you a penny.”
While the city has no direct involvement in education, two members of Foster’s staff work on collecting donations for the Doorway Scholarships program. Recipients of the scholarship have a 93 percent graduation rate, he said. He also pays his employees to spend time mentoring at St. Petersburg schools. Foster himself is a mentor at John Hopkins Middle School.
When asked about crime in downtown, Foster said that the city is seeking federal funding for street cameras, but has no plans to pay for the program itself. He said he’d prefer St. Petersburg avoid getting a reputation similar to Ybor City, which he referenced but did not explicitly name.
Foster said he understand residents’ discomfort with street cameras, but “If you’re just having a good time, who cares if you’re on candid camera.”
The mayor spoke briefly about the lack of communication between the Rays and the city. “They’re not talking and I can’t make them talk,” he said.
He said he views the Rays as a regional asset that requires regional support, but that St. Petersburg has “more skin in the game” than other Tampa Bay municipalities.
“I am committed to doing everything we can, short of rolling over and letting them leave St. Petersburg,” he said. The Rays’ contract with the city expires in 2027.
Foster also addressed plans for the new pier. The current pier is old, with a lot of exposed rebar and a design that is not conducive to maintaining businesses or resident interest, he said.
“We can have an iconic structure that will be a place locals want to go,” Foster said.
He wants The Pier to remain at the same length to provide a unique view into the city, have access for fishing, be easier to get to and to be “the new brand of St. Petersburg for the next hundred years.”
The mayor also hinted at future development at Baywalk. “I am optimistic Baywalk will improve,” he said, and that he was privy to exciting information but wouldn’t discuss particulars to avoid jeopardizing any future deals.
During the meeting he urged USFSP journalism students to ask follow-up questions and to stick with the truth, but remained adamant that the presence of a St. Petersburg Times reporter in the audience was preventing him from being truly candid.
“There is someone in the room that buys ink by the barrel,” he said.
After the conclusion of the meeting Foster stayed and spoke with several students and addressed a question about press exclusion from public events. Foster said that he likes to speak with residents without having to see his or their words in print the next day, and that not all policy discussions are ready for mass consumption.
He said he was frustrated with a reporter that followed him around as he spoke to residents at a monthly Breakfast with the Mayor event. Foster said that private citizens don’t want their private conversation with the mayor made public, and he urged students not to be “that kind of reporter.”
Student April Parsons, a journalism major and one of the moderators of the event, said that she agreed that there was a time and a place for reporting and journalists should be careful to avoid violating the privacy of citizens, but wonders how to be “a journalist and a concerned citizen” at the same time.
The event was hosted by the Neighborhood News Bureau, a working newsroom and journalism-training program at USFSP led by Loretha Cleveland.
Photo by Audra Dorsey