ST. PETERSBURG — After four years of belt-tightening and little fanfare, the contrast could hardly be more striking.
Before a crowd of about 350 residents, city workers and dignitaries, Rick Kriseman was sworn into office as the city’s 53rd mayor Thursday and promised a more dynamic, forward-thinking city that will better rival Tampa in attracting jobs and economic development.
In a splashy inauguration-like ceremony that may set the tone for his leadership, Kriseman pledged to free small businesses of red tape, push for mass-transportation and to grow the city’s marine science and health care sectors. The city also will no longer be silent on bigger issues like climate change, gun violence and youth incarceration, he said.
“We are truly on the cusp,” he said. “If we do these things we will continue to emerge from the shadow of the city across the Bay to become a center of commerce and a driver of economic development in our own right.”
The biggest round of applause during Kriseman’s 14-minute speech came after he announced city workers have already begun removing the 10-foot chain link fence around the pier, which was closed to the public June 1. The inverted pyramid building will remain closed, but the pier head will be opened to walkers, runners and anglers within a week, he said.
“We have begun the process of removing that unfriendly fence,” he said.
The half-hour ceremony provided more evidence that politics in St. Petersburg have changed. Swearing-in ceremonies for Kriseman’s predecessors Rick Baker and Bill Foster were modest affairs held in council chambers in City Hall.
After running the costliest mayoral campaign in city history, Kriseman had city workers transform the front of City Hall for his first public event.
Plush red carpet covered the steps outside, adorned by palms. Fifth Avenue North outside City Hall was closed to traffic to accommodate 200 seats and half a dozen tables.
The national anthem sung by the St. Petersburg Community Choir was accompanied by a color guard of police and firefighters.
Kriseman said the cost of the event was minimal and that it was important that the fourth largest city in Florida showcase itself.
“We are a serious city teeming with serious opportunities to raise our profile to match that of our quality of life,” he said. “I thought it was more important to move to a space that could host all those that want to come, as a symbol of my commitment to move forward together as one community.”
Former mayors Baker and Corinne Freeman attended, as did state lawmakers Dwight Dudley and Jeff Brandes, Congressional District 13 Democratic candidate Alex Sink and Pinellas County Commissioners Ken Welch and John Morroni.
Baker declined to endorse any candidate during the mayoral campaign, but said Thursday he expects Kriseman will be an effective leader.
“He clearly loves the city and that’s half the battle,” Baker said. “I expect nothing but continued forward movement for the city.”
Kriseman’s first year in office will coincide with the campaign to get county residents to back the Greenlight Pinellas plan to raise the sales tax to pay for a major expansion of the county’s bus network and a light-rail network.
That campaign will benefit from Kriseman’s ability to work well with other local leaders, said Sink.
“I see Rick working on an equal footing with [Tampa Mayor] Bob Buckhorn,” Sink said. “Transportation issues don’t stop at city or county lines.”
The heart of Kriseman’s speech focused on the need to tackle high unemployment, poverty and crime, especially in Midtown where one in five residents is out of work and one in four lives at or below federal poverty levels.
“This is happening right here in St. Petersburg and it’s unacceptable,” he said.
Since winning office, Kriseman already has hired a deputy mayor and a director of urban affairs, both charged with focusing on economic development of the city’s poorest areas.
Those appointments have fueled optimism in Midtown, said Jeff Copeland, a black community activist who worked on Foster’s 2009 campaign but backed Kriseman during the recent campaign.
“People want to see economic growth and for Midtown to become an area that can survive on its own,” Copeland said. “We have a leader who has a vision and that makes a big difference.”
Foster did not attend the swearing-in ceremony but did attend a final city council meeting where he presented term-limited city council members Leslie Curran and Jeff Danner with plaques.
The outgoing mayor was presented with a distinguished award plaque from city council member Karl Nurse. In a brief speech, Foster paid tribute to city workers and said leading the city was the greatest honor in his life.
“They’re the ones who fill the potholes, who cut the grass, who protect people and go into burning buildings,” he said. “Our job was to give them the resources they need. ”
New city council members Amy Foster and Darden Rice were sworn into office Thursday.
“I’m just excited to get started,” Rice said. “We have a lot of heavy lifting to do and I’m up to the task.”