Group helps to find win-win solutions

Consultants will work with St. Pete Beach officials and residents to iron out redevelopment controversy.

Published June 14, 2006

ST. PETE BEACH -- Using the latest technology and techniques, consultants will try in one day Saturday to untie the knot that is St. Pete Beach's redevelopment controversy years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the making.

"It is a real art, what we do," said Andrea Henning, the executive director of Collaborative Labs, an offshoot of St. Petersburg College that aims to help groups and organizations solve thorny problems and plan for the future. Henning's group is donating the cost of the event, which would typically be about $8,500, she said.

Henning has her work cut out for her because the city is holding fast to its position about the need to redevelop certain areas by allowing taller hotels and mixed-use buildings, while opponents say redevelopment will overrun the city with new residents and the new hotels will block out the sun. While the issue covers many areas of the city, this event will focus only on the resort district along the west side of Gulf Boulevard.

"Instead of focusing on where the divides are," Henning said, "we will focus on where the strengths are. Then we'll go into the future and say, 'What will the ideal St. Pete Beach look like in 10 or 15 years.'"

"Then we'll have them paint the picture. What can everybody support in the future?"

The controversy has resulted in a handful of lawsuits involving the city and a group of residents opposed to its plans. Residents have sought referendums on the city's plans while the city has contended such referendums would violate Florida law and its constitution. A hearing on two of those suits is Friday. The City Commission will also discuss tonight adding another referendum question to the growing list of legal challenges that have already cost the city more than $145,000.

The Collaborative Labs event will involve about 50 people using the organization's state-of-the-art facility at the EpiCenter, 13805 58th St. N in Largo. Participants were chosen from neighborhood associations, business groups and appointees from city commissioners, who will also participate.

The event will run from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. and be filled with numerous breakout sessions for small groups to solve problems, as well as joint sessions where participants can vote on presentations. At the end, Henning said, she expects the group to have reached a consensus on next steps and who will be responsible for taking them.

The public is invited to watch the collaboration, but a complete record will be available online through the Collaborative Labs Web site, and a video of the affair will be replayed on the city's television channel 15.

Collaborative Labs has performed these kinds of conferences about 120 times in the last 18 months, Henning said. They have dealt with issues like rapid transit or homelessness and have also worked with corporate clients like Honeywell and Jabil Circuit.

"Because we focus more on a positive future, people are mobilized to action instead of finger pointing," she said. "We've never walked out without a consensus."

Henning is familiar with St. Pete Beach's controversy through consultations with the city and after reviewing a meeting May 31 about the need for resort redevelopment. At that meeting, the city's consultant, Pete Sechler of Glatting Jackson, reviewed the economics of encouraging hotel development through density and height. Residents asked political questions but did not challenge Sechler's research.

Sechler was asked if he supported a citywide referendum on redevelopment and appeared to say he did, but later said he hadn't understood the question. He said straw votes and collaboration are necessary, but that he could not advocate a public vote.

Henning said she knows this event will have its pitfalls but believes her group's techniques will lead the way to understanding even among participants so sharply divided.

"I anticipate we'll earn our money on Saturday," she said. "It's a passionate group of people."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.