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Making promises -- one job at a time

By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000


Two Times reporters, Leonora LaPeter and Bryan Gilmer, recently wrote about how St. Petersburg's efforts after the 1996 disturbances to revive the neighborhoods south of Central Avenue failed.

Spectacularly.

Dave Fischer may have a personality as compelling as drywall, but that has nothing to do with his intentions. They were sincere.

The proof of the mayor's sincerity is in how much he tried to do: too much.

In the midst of failure, here's a small suggestion:

The next time the city wants to do good, could it please not try to save the whole world at once?

I take this from no think tank, no expert, no book, no poll.

The idea came to me during a winding drive through the scrub-lined back roads that connect Clair Mel and Palm River, two aging subdivisions east of Tampa, to the city's downtown.

These neighborhoods were so starved for help that one of the things they wanted most was a Popeye's Chicken franchise.

But I had been in the neighborhood to write about the revival of a long-shuttered local landmark, a strip shopping center.

Government did very little. In fact, it got in the way, to hear some people describe it. The neighborhood association was, however, working full tilt. A couple of developers saw an opportunity. They took over the mall. They had more would-be butchers, bakers and candlestick makers wanting to set up shop, all of them local people, than they had room for.

Then the idea came to me.

Why can't the Chamber of Commerce, a service group like a Kiwanis or a Rotary, or even that conglomeration of city officials who spent so much time on meetings and memos, adopt Bartlett Park, Campbell Park or Fruitland Heights or Childs Park, or any other place with even the tiniest commercial strip, and work with the people who live there to help them develop their own businesses?

Don't promise a thousand jobs. Don't promise one. Promise to work with people for what they want, and from the ground up. Stick in the neighborhood for a couple of years to help the would-be entrepreneurs of the neighborhood get going.

When that neighborhood is on its feet, start work in another.

This is pie in the sky talk, of course. I might even be accused of Republican thinking.

How delightful.

More pie in the sky.

If, say, a section of 22nd Avenue S had more thriving, locally owned businesses, if the presence of those businesses tended, as they might, to make the neighborhood more stable and safer, outside interest in the neighborhood would grow. Somebody with money to invest might move in.

During the fierce debate over whether Weed and Seed belonged south of Central Avenue, I heard a man cry out in a meeting, "This is not a criminal community."

His voice has never left my memory. He was talking about a community sick of criminals in its midst and eager to makes it own opportunities.

This opportunity was blown.

Blowing it does more damage than can be measured by the number of jobs that failed to materialize.

The cynicism left behind is far more destructive, even corrosive.

The next time trouble breaks out in the neglected parts of St. Petersburg, the next mayor who offers to help will be greeted not like a hero but like a phony. He will hear a million variations on that sad expression about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And he'll have a rock-hard time explaining why, with him, the outcome will be different.

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