St. Petersburg's mayor, Rick Kriseman, and his deputy mayor , Kanika Tomalin, greet the public at last week's swearing in.
Thank you to our talented community choir, to my Rabbi, Rabbi Michael Torop, and to Judge Tom Ramsberger. I am honored to be joined on these steps by my family, my wife Kerry, my daughter Jordan, and my son Samuel; and by our Deputy Mayor, Dr. Kanika Tomalin, and her family, Terry, Kai, and Nia.
To the esteemed members of the St. Petersburg City Council, Chairman Dudley, to the elected officials who have joined us, distinguished guests, dedicated city employees, transition team chairs and volunteers, and to my fellow citizens, thank you for being here – for me and for the city we love.
I especially want to thank our public safety personnel as well as the city employees who helped organize this event - at nearly no expense to our taxpayers.
Some have asked - why such a ceremony?
Because anything less would fall short of the significance of this city and this day.
St. Petersburg is Florida’s fourth largest city. 250,000 people call it home, and millions visit us every year.
We are a serious city teeming with serious opportunities to raise our profile to match that of our quality of life.
Traditionally, the swearing-in of the mayor happens upstairs in Council Chambers, a regal room with space for a relative few – space quickly absorbed by family, friends and those closest to the city’s newest elected officials.
While I appreciate that tradition, I thought it was important to move to a space that could host all who care to come – a symbol of my commitment to move forward together as one community, and to do so in the sunshine.
And so today belongs to all of us. The doors of city hall are open and the journey toward our collective vision has begun.
I am honored by your presence at the start of this New Year and at the cusp of a new era – a unique time, but a familiar place.
From the arrival of the Orange Belt Railway in 1888, when a tiny hamlet got its name and found its way onto the map, St. Petersburg has experienced moments just like this.
In the 1920s, this hamlet was transformed into a modern city with tall buildings and grand hotels.
Following World War II, a single-family housing boom nearly doubled our population, while the opening of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and U.S. Highway 19 linked us to the rest of the state and the nation.
In 1993, we approved a strong-mayor form of government.
A renaissance was imagined and later realized, and resulted in awesome strides.
During each of these eras, men and women of vision pushed forward together.
Some were leaders; others were residents who simply loved their city and wanted to make it better, and still others accomplished the hard work of laying rails, pouring concrete, sawing, hammering, and hundreds of other hands-on tasks.
Today, on this doorstep of profound change, we recognize the hard work that has been especially cut out for us, for this moment in time;
Like the need for a new pier.
It’s been a long and winding road, and it’s time to put our destination in view.
The form and fashion of the next pier is unlikely to meet with universal approval. We must recognize this now so that our progress isn’t impeded later.
However, what we can agree on – and to a large degree already have – is how our signature structure will function. With a renewed sense of urgency and a spirit of collaboration, I am confident that the coming year will be productive and that a final design will emerge.
In the interim, residents and visitors should be able to once again enjoy walking, running or fishing around the pier head.
And that’s why this morning we have begun the process of removing that unfriendly fence, allowing the pier head to be accessible within the next week.
The hard work of reaching an accord with the Tampa Bay Rays must also begin, with the primary goal of doing what’s in the best interest of the residents of St. Petersburg.
And while I am eager to see this resolved so that we can better plan St. Pete’s future, our desire for clarity must not supersede the need for continued due diligence.
The Pier and the Rays may be our most high profile challenges, but a police station, a port, a renewed focus on creating sustainable jobs throughout the city, economic stimulus for Midtown and South St. Petersburg, and the revitalization and rebranding of vital corridors - also hang in the balance.
On Midtown and South St. Pete, my remarks on election night bear repeating.
Too many people there are struggling.
One out of every five residents is unemployed.
One out of every four lives at or below poverty.
Property values have fallen 42 percent since the onset of the Great Recession.
This is happening right here in St. Petersburg.
It’s unacceptable, especially given Midtown’s rich history and potential.
Even before the railroad came to St. Petersburg, pioneers lived along a twisting woodlands path called Lakeview Trail.
One of the newcomers was John Donaldson, the first black man known to live here. He farmed 40 acres, carried the U.S. Mail and was among the most respected men in all of Pinellas County.
Midtown went on to nurture many more giants: entrepreneur Elder Jordan; the Reverend Enoch Davis, who served his congregation for more than 50 years; legendary educators such as O.B. McLin; athletes, artists, and actors such as Angela Bassett – who, like me and Dr. Tomalin, was a graduate of Boca Ciega High School.
To me, it’s simple; the best way to honor Midtown’s past is to improve its future.
The new Community Redevelopment Agency for Midtown and South St. Pete is a step in the right direction and is an important ingredient for a broader plan aimed at reducing poverty by 30 percent by the year 2020.
But, let me be very clear. Public and private dollars alone won’t get us there. It will take hard work and a commitment from all of us to fully realize the dream of a seamless city, of One St. Petersburg.
One way to break down imagined boundaries, racial and otherwise, will be to make getting around easier.
We are at the bleak crossroads of a critical infrastructure crisis.
That is why we have been engaged in the necessary conversation about restructuring the bus system, adopting light rail, and even reconfiguring our tax system to pay for the way we travel in this region.
But make no mistake: that necessary conversation is over. Now it is time to make a choice.
Will we choose to become an interconnected region, one with efficient bus routes that make sense, with light rail, and with a plan to pay for it?
The Tampa Bay area is the largest region in the nation without an effective mass transit system. Yes, we are economically strong -- but with an improved public transportation system and rail connecting the county as well as our friends across the bay, we could be even stronger.
This is not light work.
It is a challenge we accept, one we will not postpone, and one we must win in order to become a vibrant city of opportunity, with access for all who call it home.
In closing, I want to touch on a different kind of infrastructure: our government.
I am fortunate to have inherited a committed, tenured team of professionals who deliver excellence in every capacity of the city’s work. From economic development to public works to community services, from housing to parks and recreation – wonderful work is happening at the hands of good people every day.
This effort must continue, but it must also be elevated by the addition of a shared vision that serves as a common goal; the vision of an innovative, competitive, forward-thinking community that embraces the 21st century.
In other words, I want every member of our team to always know where we’re heading and how we’ll get there.
The result will be a better quality of life for those among us who are living well – and access to an improved quality of life for those among us who are struggling, vulnerable, or voiceless.
There’s also room to modify our team’s processes to shift from a fragmented silo model of management to one that integrates departments’ functions in support of that common goal.
Our entire operational philosophy must also shift. We will be solution-oriented. No longer will ‘no’ be an acceptable first response.
No longer will we roll out the red carpet for big businesses while rolling out the red tape for small ones.
No longer will we be a small city that refuses to engage on the big issues, like climate change, gun violence, and youth incarceration.
No longer will we be afraid to take bold action or to make mistakes. We, I, will make them, and when we do we will be honest about them, we will correct them, we will learn from them, and we won’t make them again.
Of course, all of this requires not just a strong mayor, but a strong mayor’s office; the kind of structure that cities both large and small have in place.
Simply put, our city hall has not kept up with our city. And without adjustments, our city will not be able to keep up with other cities.
With all St. Pete has to offer, the only way we lose in the pursuit of new businesses and resources is if we’re outmanned and outmaneuvered.
And knowing that you’ve entrusted me to be a good steward of your tax dollars, I am pleased that we’ve been able to grow our team while staying within the confines of our current budget.
My friends, we are truly on the cusp.
If we do these things, we will continue to emerge from the shadow of the city across the bay to become a center of commerce and a driver of economic development in our own right.
We will advance beyond our reputation for a bustling waterfront, the arts, and baseball to one that also touts world-class education and innovation in the marine sciences, health care, and clean energy.
We will become a daring city…a beacon of progress.
We will seek that mighty thread that will knit all that we are and all that we do into a united whole – a 21st century city whose fabled sunshine brightens all points of our compass; north, south, east and west.
If we do that, we will have honored our history and embraced our future.
May God bless this great city and all those who live here.
Thank you, St. Petersburg.