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Ladies and gentlemen, start your skepticism

By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 2001


Downtown St. Petersburg is alive. Take a walk down Central Avenue on a Friday or Saturday evening, past restaurants and music and wine bars and art galleries that were not there even a couple of years ago.

Downtown St. Petersburg is alive. Take a walk down Central Avenue on a Friday or Saturday evening, past restaurants and music and wine bars and art galleries that were not there even a couple of years ago.

To the east, toward the city's first-class, park-lined waterfront, the big problem is too much pressure for new housing -- housing, the most elusive component of a truly vibrant downtown, which even Tampa lacks.

I suppose you could credit this renewal to the wisdom and leadership of St. Petersburg's mayor and City Council. Maybe it was all those fancy maps they kept drawing up.

Or maybe, in the natural course of events, the free market went to work. Crazy as it sounds, people sometimes do decide to open a business, or to go to a restaurant.

Either way, it now seems a little old-fashioned, a little unnecessary, for the city government's leaders still to look so desperately for ways to Put St. Petersburg On The Map.

Yet every rookie mayor, every fresh-eyed City Council member, gives in to the temptation to Put Us On The Map. Despite the city's assets, its leaders remain so Mayberryish, so fearful that somebody will think they run a cow town, that they continue to court On-The-Map-ness out of instinct, as an amoeba gropes toward food, or a flower turns to the sun.

If St. Petersburg were a character in a British comedy, it would be Mrs. Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances, who insists that her name is pronounced "boo-KAY." In an American sitcom, St. Petersburg would be Lucy, scheming to sneak into Ricky's TV special.

Typically, St. Petersburg's ambition involves a shaky, loophole-ridden deal with some promoter who promises, not only to Put Us On The Map, but also to generate an incredible Economic Impact. (It is a miracle that we all are not millionaires by now.)

Do you really want me to cite 15-plus years of this exact same story, the same excited news conference held time after time after time? Do we really even need to whisper the words, "Bay Plaza"?

Or would just the past year be enough?

How about the fact that St. Petersburg simply could not stand the fact that "Tampa Bay" was the host of the Super Bowl, so it was easily suckered by a shaky "promoter" into sponsoring an unattended disaster in Vinoy Park called "Superfest"?

Last month, the American Power Boat Association Offshore demanded that the city cough up more tax money for that group's offshore races. By the way, the group still owed $63,000 to the city from the previous year. The city agreed to knock that down to $48,000. Economic impact, you know. I am sure the manatees are grateful. (Insert irritating, high-decibel drone here.)

This brings us to this week:

A first-year mayor, and limelight-seeking members of the City Council, stand proudly at a news conference, announcing that St. Petersburg will turn over its downtown, starting in 2003, to be used for auto racing, which was held here in the 1980s and 1990s.

It is the same old "agreement in principle." Don't worry! A big corporation is behind it, sure! An outfit from Long Beach, Calif., will be the promoter! But what we have, here on the ground, the supposed "general manager" of the event, is none other than Tom Begley, the same guy of long and interesting history who put on lower-level auto racing in St. Petersburg back in the 1990s.

Here is what the very last sentence of the news story said of the gentleman:

Begley still owes $40,552 to the city from the previous races, which he will repay over five years.

If I were the mayor or City Council, I would say to all comers, especially debtors trying to get more tax money: Pay your debt to the taxpayers now, and produce for public inspection an iron-clad contract and iron-clad proof of financing. This is the crystal-clear lesson of St. Petersburg's history.

The impresarios will threaten: Waah! Give us what we want or we will go to Tampa! And here will be the truly sophisticated reply of a grown-up, self-confident city: Seeya.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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