City Council shelves USF, Bayfront Center deal
By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- The City Council decided Tuesday not to move forward with plans to lease the Bayfront Center to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg without USF vice president Bill Heller in charge.
Instead, council members voted to study other possibilities for the arena and theater complex, which has required increasing city subsidies up to $1.3-million.
Heller said last week that he agreed to step aside when USF president Judy Genshaft asked him to let someone else run USF St. Petersburg. Just a week earlier, she had appeared before the City Council at Heller's side and supported the university's leasing the Bayfront Center as Heller had proposed.
Voters must approve any lease of city-owned waterfront land. Because the council liked the idea, it scheduled Tuesday's meeting to discuss the wording of a referendum for November.
The university would have torn down the outdated arena and built a conference center to complement the Mahaffey Theater.
In light of Heller's departure, Tuesday's discussion turned to killing the November referendum.
"I have a lot of concern with (Heller) not being there and what's going to happen with that campus," council member Richard Kriseman said.
"We were building on a natural partnership, and that partnership has been embodied by vice president Heller," council member Jay Lasita agreed.
The council technically was meeting as a committee, so it could not take final action. It voted 5-1 to recommend a formal vote deferring any referendum. At least two council members would have to change their minds to overturn the committee recommendation, and the five sounded adamant. Rene Flowers and Bill Foster were absent.
David Welch, a USF St. Petersburg governing board member, told council members the board was never asked about it. Heller had no comment Tuesday.
USF spokesman Michael Reich said Tuesday that Heller had Genshaft's support and that of several university board members for the project.
"Certainly, we are disappointed" with Tuesday's vote, Reich said. "But at the same time, we have a number of partnerships with the city and will continue to have partnerships."
Reich said that even without a referendum this year, the university would be willing to keep discussing the idea with the city for the future.
Council member Virginia Littrell said she felt Genshaft was disingenuous with the council.
"Now Bill Heller has been forced to resign -- and Judy Genshaft knew that the day she was here -- that doesn't sit well with me," Littrell said. "I have some really great reservations about doing business with USF at this point."
The six council members asked Mayor Rick Baker's staff to study different ideas for the center, including repairing and renovating the leaky arena and tearing it down to build something else. They want to hear a report by March 1.
Council members also talked about building the conference center with a different partner.
Lasita isn't happy that Heller is gone, but he said he didn't vote against the referendum mainly to send a message of displeasure to Genshaft.
Nonetheless, he said, "I am hoping that she does get that message."
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