ST. PETERSBURG — Job creation has taken something of a back seat in the debate over who will be the city’s next mayor, with the police department, the pier, failing schools and the Tampa Bay Rays’ stadium dispute hogging discussion time.
That changed Tuesday evening in a combative first debate of the general election season as incumbent Mayor Bill Foster defended his economic record as city leader while challenger Rick Kriseman pledged that he would remove obstacles like the excessive regulations he said make it tough for small businesses to grow.
More than 100 people attended the debate, hosted by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Questions focused on economic development and came from a panel that included local business owners who wanted specifics on how the candidates would encourage the creation of small businesses and create more jobs.
Foster said he had successfully led the city out of the worst recession and foreclosure crisis in its history. The city’s Greenhouse program is helping budding entrepreneurs, and a partnership with universities and colleges will give graduating students skills that local businesses like Jabil Circuit want, he said.
“You can’t look at the city skyline without seeing a crane,” he said. “We focused on the details. We did more with less than anybody.”
But Kriseman blasted Foster for waiting until this summer to launch the Greenhouse program, about 3 and a half years after taking over the reins of the city.
Kriseman said his focus would be to expand partnerships with local universities and colleges to produce a better trained workforce. He would also reach out to existing businesses to see what the city can do to help them grow, he said.
Foster also defended the city’s record of helping businesses outside of downtown. He said the creation of the Edge District and Grand Central had shown how the city is encouraging businesses to grow. He said plans for a 34th Avenue Corridor would also help turn around that area.
But Kriseman said business owners tell him the only city officials they ever see are code enforcement staff. He said there are almost no signs in the city that direct visitors to anywhere other than downtown and that plans for revitalizing 34th Avenue are “stuck in quicksand.”
Even in a debate focused on the city’s economy, there was still time for a question on how the city would be affected if the Rays depart. There are no new talks scheduled between the team and city officials. City Council members have reported that the Rays do not want to compensate the city if the team leaves Tropicana Field ahead of 2027 when the current lease expires.
Kriseman said he would have a better chance to repair the city’s relationship with the team.
“The Rays have lost faith with Mr. Foster,” Kriseman said. “That’s part of the reason we haven’t made any progress.”
Foster said he would continue to represent the city and taxpayers.
“We’re going to have Tropicana Field there through 2027,” he said. “I’m going to fight to make sure the Rays meet their obligation to you, the taxpayer, who has skin in the game.”
The candidates also aimed a few blows at each other, with Foster repeating earlier attacks on Kriseman’s six-year record as a state lawmaker, saying he failed to get any bills passed.
“He spent six years in Tallahassee and didn’t accomplish a thing,” Foster said. “I know a lot of Democrats in Tallahassee that brought things home.”
Kriseman blamed Foster’s leadership for Midtown losing its only grocery store when Sweetbay closed in February.
“He should have known that Sweetbay was closing, but nothing happened for a year,” Kriseman said.