ST. PETERSBURG - The first mayoral debate of this year's election proved a bumpy ride for incumbent Bill Foster, with most of the jabs coming not from his opponents but from the audience. Residents, including former police Chief Goliath Davis III, accused Foster of taking credit for projects that were begun before he took office, including securing a deal for Sylvia's restaurant to open at Manhattan Casino and improvements to the Childs Park area. Foster also drew fire for his refusal until this year to sign a proclamation in support of the city's gay pride parade and for closing The Pier and displacing businesses. The two-hour debate, held Thursday evening at the Suncoast Hospice in Midtown, marked the beginning of the campaign season in earnest. Both of Foster's opponents at the debate - Rick Kriseman and Kathleen Ford - blasted him for his handling of the city's efforts to build a new pier. The inverted pyramid pier closed May 31, but the fate of The Lens, the city's intended new pier, rests with voters.
"To lose 450 jobs and close 28 businesses when it really wasn't necessary really is a darn shame," Ford said. Foster responded that it was Ford's failure to follow the city charter that led to a first petition effort being rejected by the City Council and that he had called for citizens to be given a vote on The Lens. "I wish she had done it right," he said. "I wish it were on the November presidential ballot when you had 90 percent voter turnout." But the strongest criticism of Foster came from Davis, whom Foster fired from a top city position in 2011 after Davis did not attend funerals of three slain police officers. Davis and other residents said Foster had piggy-backed on the work of former Mayor Rick Baker and could not claim success for bringing Sylvia's to the city, the redevelopment of the Jamestown housing project or for St. Petersburg College's plans for a new Midtown campus. "Is it true you did all of these things or were you in the chair when it came to fruition?" Davis asked. Foster responded that as mayor he was responsible for guiding those projects and others to completion. He said he might not have found the tenant for Manhattan Casino but that he negotiated a better deal for the city. "These are things that have to go into the mayor's office to be accomplished," Foster said. "You have no idea what I do in that chair." Throughout the debate, Foster frequently emphasized the city's economic development and said he had positioned the city to grow despite the recent recession. He said the city has seen $500 million worth of private development under his leadership. "We're seeing a resurgence in economic development and job creation," he said. Kriseman, a former state lawmaker, said he would make economic development and improvements of neighborhoods his top priorities. He called for more funding for neighborhood improvement projects and more community policing. "We've forgotten about neighborhoods - that is what made St. Petersburg special, what made St. Petersburg strong," Kriseman said. Ford also called for more community policing and said she would try to add more pre-K and child care programs in a bid to increase graduation rates in city schools. "Waiting until kids are ready for kindergarten to begin to intervene is wrong," she said. The primary election is Aug. 27. If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will go to a runoff election in November. Anthony Cates and Paul Congemi, who both qualified to run for mayor, did not take part in the debate. email@example.com (727) 215-7654 Twitter: @codonnellTBO