Neighborhood groups have thrived under the mayor and worry that the next election might bring someone less committed.
By JON WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- The "neighborhood mayor" will not seek re-election, but grass-roots leaders say the power that David Fischer conferred upon neighborhoods can't be allowed to melt away.
Fischer announced Tuesday he will not run in next year's city elections, triggering concern that the next administration won't be as dedicated to solving neighborhood problems.
Much of the worry is emerging from neighborhoods in the Challenge area, which Fischer targeted for special attention after the 1996 street violence.
Chrisshun Cox, president of the Melrose-Mercy/Pine Acres Neighborhood Association, said word of Fischer's announcement reached the Front Porch meeting Tuesday night.
"We were not too happy," Cox said late last week. "We're still looking at what we can do to get him to come back. We are still so dismayed."
"There are concerns throughout the black neighborhoods about him not running. At this point, we don't know what we're going to do."
A petition drive was to begin this weekend asking Fischer to reconsider, said David Brown Jr., Wildwood Heights president.
"When I heard the announcement he wasn't going to run, I talked to some of my neighbors, and they felt like he needed to do four more years," Brown said. "If he quits now, all his projects won't be fulfilled."
Several Operation Commitment programs, which are intense efforts to restore neighborhoods through cleanups and installation of lights and sidewalks, have targeted Challenge neighborhoods.
Other neighborhood leaders, such as Palmetto Park's Ezell Boykins and Mel-Tan Heights' Bessie Cannida, said they think their neighborhoods are safer because of the initiatives of Fischer's administration.
And some like what they call Fischer's down-to-earth style of communication.
"Everything I ever brought him, he was there for me," Cannida said.
Faye Jackson, community liaison for the Front Porch program, said she is a fan of the city's neighborhood structure. Currently, more than 100 neighborhood associations are up and running.
"I'm hoping and praying that the new administration will support those organizations, and also support the programs that encourage residents to make productive decisions about their neighborhoods," Jackson said.
Although not all are lavish in their praise of the mayor, leaders in the city's northern sections also said they think it's important for Fischer's neighborhood policies to continue.
"It's critical," said Steve Plice, president of Jungle Terrace, one of the city's more active and influential associations.
"I think Mayor Fischer has spearheaded a form of local citizen involvement in this city that's unique in this county, and I don't think we want to let go of that lightly," Plice said.
Fischer said last week he is proud of the broadly based neighborhood movement.
"It's a program that covers the whole city. I think the neighborhoods feel equal to other parts of the city," he said.
That's much different from the way it used to be, Fischer said, citing an old rift between the neighborhoods and downtown business interests that dated to his tenure as a City Council member during the 1970s.
Back then, Fischer said, "The Chamber (of Commerce) was anathema to the neighborhoods."
Jim Biggerstaff, a Disston Heights resident who is president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, is adamant that the lengthy list of mayoral hopefuls pay attention to street-level issues close to residents' hearts, such as codes enforcement and community policing.
"They're going to have to deal with me," said Biggerstaff, who is running unopposed in Wednesday's next CONA election.
Neither Plice nor Biggerstaff, however, is certain he would have supported Fischer in a re-election campaign.
"David, the last couple of years, has really turned over the city to his different department heads," Biggerstaff said.
"That's created a lot of problems . . . because he's allowed them to run the city. He needed to take more of a heavier hand than what he does."
Fischer's departure creates a new election dynamic at a time when many think the city is at a crossroads, and not only in terms of what neighborhoods can expect under a new administration.
Candidates can expect to be asked about such things as economic development in the African-American neighborhoods, and what they think should be the overall direction of the city.
"The vision for the future of the city becomes the major dialogue with the mayoral candidates," Plice said. "So candidates can present themselves in terms of their vision: "My vision is better than the other guy's.' "
Many neighborhood associations won't formally endorse candidates and are prohibited from doing so if they are set up as nonprofit corporations. So some leaders are reluctant to name anyone they may see as a possible champion for neighborhood issues.
Plice did say he thinks there are several candidates who would continue neighborhood attention.
"I think that Kathleen Ford, Ronnie Beck and Karl Nurse come to mind."
Rick Baker, Plice said, may be perceived as a "neighborhood guy" because he founded the annual CONA leadership picnic.
Ingrid Comberg, the often outspoken Uptown president, is another who will stay away from endorsing any particular candidate.
But Uptown was the first of the Operation Commitment neighborhoods, and Comberg has strong opinions about the neighborhood effort continuing.
"I'm sure that every new mayor, male or female, in his or her right mind, would keep the Neighborhood Partnership office. Maybe with new ideas," Comberg said.
And will Fischer offer public support for any candidate?
"I'm going to see how it shakes out," Fischer said. "That's certainly an option.
"A mayor such as myself doesn't want to see what's done unravel. You want to make sure all this hard work won't go to waste."
Here are a few important dates in the development of Mayor David Fischer's neighborhood initiative.
May 1993 -- The intense neighborhood improvement program, called Operation Commitment, begins in Uptown.
June 1993 -- The mayor announces a new position specifically to oversee neighborhood revitalization.
July 1993 -- Official start of the Neighborhood Partnership office. Mike Dove named director. Susan Ajoc, Bob Gilder and Roy Otto join the office later.
December 1993 -- Gilder offers to bring a house up to code standards. It becomes the start of the N-Team program to help fix up homes for people who can't afford it.
April 1994 -- First neighborhood housing festival, a kind of home show for renovating houses.
July 1995 -- First public report of increased property values due to neighborhood efforts.
April 1997 -- Neighborhood Services Division created to combine several city departments for the benefit of neighborhoods.
May 1997 -- Fischer announces Challenge 2001 plan will target neighborhoods damaged by the 1996 civil disturbances.
April 1998 -- Community Business Development Center opens on 16th Street S.
September 1998 -- Start of Breakfasts with the Mayor for neighborhood leaders.
November 1998 -- A Neighborhood Summit identifies traffic calming as its major area of concern.
October 1999 -- The city hosts the Florida Neighborhoods Conference.
February 2000 -- The number of neighborhood associations reaches 100, up from 43 since 1993.
June 2000 -- Fischer announces the continuation of Challenge 2001 as simply Challenge, extending a commitment to neighborhood restoration.