“Another Great Day in St. Petersburg”

The “I Had a Dream” article that ran in the May 10 Gabber was the third in a three part series. Here’s part two, in which I quote Rick Baker accusing me of spinning a story. Share and enjoy….

This article originally appeared in print in the Gabber Newspaper.

A Tale of Two Cities: Part II

By Cathy Salustri

“It’s another great day in St. Petersburg,” Mayor Rick Baker announced Tuesday morning at Midtown’s Tangerine Plaza. Baker, along with a bevy of St. Petersburg officials, attended the grand opening of two new businesses in the Sweetbay shopping plaza on the corner of 18th Avenue and 22nd Street South.

Mayor Baker- along with Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis- has passion when he talks about midtown. After the ceremonies, he sits down on a bench outside the Sweetbay, ready to talk about the changes in Midtown.

I ask him first about citizen concerns about crime. In researching Midtown’s progress I have heard a lot of concern that the City could do more to fight crime in Midtown.

The 2006 Uniform Crime Report for St. Petersburg reports that eight of the nine highest crime areas in the city fall within Midtown’s boundaries. These areas have an average crime rate of roughly 22%.

That means that out of every 100 people living in those neighborhoods, 22 fell prey to murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, or auto theft in 2006.

“You can certainly spin the story that way if you want to,” Baker says, adding “There are crime problems everywhere. Crime is down.”

The nine federal census tracts in question reflect an increase in crime. In 2000, the crime rate in those nine areas hovered just above 19%. However, the Mayor is right — the overall crime rate for St. Petersburg fell from 8.2% in 2000 to 8.1% last year.

Not everyone agrees with Baker’s optimism about the crime rate. Some accuse Baker of focusing on economic development and ignoring crime problems in their neighborhoods.

Lou Delprete, a Central Oak Park resident for over 40 years, doubts Baker’s ability to revitalize midtown in a way that will improve the quality of life for existing residents.

“I think he listens to Goliath Davis,” Delprete says “which means nothing. I think he’s looking at businesses and condos and he’s not concerned with the residents at all. He’ll pour money into midtown and still have a high crime rate.”

“It would be a huge mistake to assume we chose to do economic development instead of law enforcement,” Baker says, “We chose to do it in addition to.”

Davis shares Baker’s passion for Midtown, growing more animated as he denies problems of discord.

“We didn’t come in and assume we had any idea of what the community was going to want,” Davis says. “This process is a direct result of community engagement and focus groups.”

From communication with Midtown residents, Davis says the city developed a strategic plan for Midtown. That plan includes economic development, codes enforcement, housing, and public safety. All those components, Davis says, must dovetail to improve Midtown.

“You can’t arrest your way out of an economic problem,” he says.

“You’ve got to do everything at the same time: infrastructure, crime, and economic development,” Baker explains.

Both men suggest that crime poses less of a concern than the other issues in Midtown.

“If you look at the number of people who are buying houses, that’s not indicative of the people worrying about crime,” Baker says.

Tom Tito, a 33 year veteran of Bartlett Park, disagrees.

“There’s all kinds of new buildings,” Tito, president of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association explains, “but according to the St. Pete Times last October, 5,000 people have moved out. I think he’s got a lot of wishful thinking going on.”

Rose Mary Kitchen and her husband have lived in Bartlett Park for 37 years. She does worry about crime.

“You can’t help but feel endangered,” she says after Tuesday night’s Crime Watch meeting, “You never know when a shooting can occur.”

Clearly, not everyone agrees. That, according to Baker, doesn’t mean bad things for the city.

“The conflict you’re seeing… is not an unhealthy conflict. I don’t mind people pushing us — the worst thing is when a neighborhood has given up,” Baker says. As he speaks, a man approaches. Noel Pennington, a Lake Maggiore Shores resident, wants to thank the Mayor and shake his hand.

“I think St. Petersburg is changing a lot, and it’s all for the better,” he tells Baker.

Scott Swift, a Bartlett Park resident, agrees that the change has helped.

“I’ve become a fan of the Mayor because I can see what he’s doing,” Swift says “and there’s a lot of pain to it. You’re going from a retirement-based community. The city was very stable — and unchanged — for about 30 years.”

Changes in the population and what attracts people to St. Petersburg have meant that city government has had to change how it handles certain issues.

“We’re building a much better city, but you have to change law enforcement and prevention strategies as your culture and population changes,” Swift says.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that St. Petersburg Police do all they can to help, but can’t do it alone.

“You’ve go to call in constantly — without mercy and with zero tolerance. It’s the one thing we can do,” Swift told the Crime Watch group Tuesday night.

“They need more police officers,” Tito says, “The Sheriff said he would provide more deputies to help fill in, but the Mayor refuses to ask.”

Kitchen and her husband Johnnie say that parents need to take responsibility for their children.

“The kids need training,” Mr. Kitchen says.

Delprete says the city needs a curfew, something brought up at Tuesday night’s Crime Watch meeting.

Davis and Baker say that, despite these complaints, Midtown continues to move in the right direction. Baker says that by the end of his term, “I think we’ll be very close to being there in terms of the seamlessness.”

Davis grew up in St. Petersburg and currently lives in Pinellas Point. He told me he would have no problem if his daughter wanted to live in Midtown.

“There’s nowhere in the City I wouldn’t live,” he smiles.

Tito and Delprete both shudder and shake their heads “no” when asked if they would want their daughters to move into Midtown.

“You’re talking to the wrong people,” Davis says, “Go up to anyone here and ask them how they feel about it,” he adds, gesturing to the crowd gathered at the ribbon cutting

I approach Sam Thomas. Thomas has lived in Midtown “off and on” since the 1970s. I ask him how he feels about the new shops.

“I think it’s positive,” Thomas says as he leans against the new Beauty Supply store in Tangerine Plaza.

“How committed,” I ask next “do you think the city is to improving the quality of life in Midtown?”

He pauses.

“I think to a certain extent.”

Where, I ask, does that commitment end?

“Behind the Sweetbay. It’s like if the outside of the house looks good, but when you open the door, it looks ratty.”

You can contact Cathy Salustri here. Next Week: I Had A Dream.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.