ST. PETERSBURG - Growing the city and its economy was the main topic today as Mayor Bill Foster and opponent Rick Kriseman made their case to lead the city over the next four years.
In what was the second mayoral debate of the campaign, both candidates said spurring economic growth was key to increasing the city's population, which flat-lined during the recession.
Foster pointed to the $500 million worth of economic development that has occurred in the city since he took office in 2009, saying the city is emerging from the recent recession in a strong position.
"We focused on budget reductions and tax relief and focused on making sure there weren't impediments to this growth," Foster said. "It's all about controlled development as a city; if you're not growing, you're dying."
Kriseman, a former City Council member and Democratic state lawmaker, said he would work to improve the city's infrastructure and residents' quality of life, in addition to encouraging growth in the city's marine-science and health hubs.
"It will bring others into our communities and, more importantly, to spend their dollars in our restaurants, stores and businesses," he said.
Mayoral candidates Kathleen Ford, Steve Congemi and Anthony Cates did not attend the debate, which was held at Westminster Palms on Beach Drive. Ford said the organizers did not check to see if she was available before scheduling the debate.
City Council District 4 candidates Carolyn Fries, David McKalip and Darden Rice also took part in the forum,
Rice, a local activist, and McKalip, a neurosurgeon, clashed over McKalip's solution to the city's pier woes: leasing the pier to private investors.
The city could emulate the private-public partnership that renovated Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, McKalip said. That would mean taxpayers would be off the hook for the $50 million cost of building a new pier and would turn the waterfront amenity into a revenue stream for the city, he said.
His idea was heavily criticized by both Foster and Rice, who said it would mean privatizing part of the the city's prized waterfront.
"He would give the publicly owned pier to a private developer," Rice said.
The two also clashed on whether Pinellas County needs transit. Voters in November 2014 will be asked to approve a one-penny sales tax increase to replace property tax as the funding source for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
The new tax would bring in roughly $130 million per year and would be used to expand the county's bus network and build a light-rail system.
Transit systems are crucial to the growth of larger metropolitan areas and would give residents more access to better-paying jobs, said Rice, a member of PSTA's governing board.
McKalip said transit systems in some cities, including Charlotte, N.C., have struggled and questioned whether light rail would spur economic development.
Fries, who this week filed campaign reports showing she raised roughly $6,700 for her campaign between March 1 and June 30, said she has yet to be convinced about the need for a transit tax.
"For $130 million a year, it better make a lot of sense," Fries said.
Debates this week:
7 p.m., Mayoral debate focusing on LGBT issues, Metro Wellness, 3251 Third Ave. N.
Noon, Mayoral debate, Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, St. Petersburg Yach Club, 11 Central Ave.
11 a.m., Debate featuring candidates for mayor and City Council Districts 4, 6 and 8, South St. Petersburg Democratic Club, Sanderlin Center, 2335 22nd Ave. S.