ST. PETERSBURG, Fla - St. Pete's mayoral candidates debated tonight and explained how they plan to help small businesses and increase economic development in the area to a standing room only crowd.
USF St. Petersburg and LocalShops1 partnered to present the mayoral forum. Open and free to the public, the debate lasted one hour inside the USFSP University Center Ball Room located at 200 6th Avenue South.
Incumbent Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman are the two candidates who emerged from the August 27 primary.
Forum moderator Judithanne Scourfield-McLauchlan, Ph.D., who is a USFSP political science professor, said the panel chosen for the debate specifically included local business leaders, small business owners and many from USFSP's entrepreneurial program.
"I think everyone is concerned about revitalizing our city," said McLauchlan.
"Whether it is issues like the Pier or the Rays or the waterfront, Baywalk and other development of businesses in downtown.
The panel consisted of five people.
For the first 40 minutes, candidates were peppered with questions regarding the local economy. Here is a sampling of the questions and answers.
Q. While the small business community in general is the lifeblood of our economy, research has shown that high growth entrepreneurial firms generally account for most of the economic growth in a community or region. What would you as mayor do to support high growth entrepreneurial firms?
Foster: I think we have already started on that endeavor. Thanks to USF St. Pete and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, we created The Greenhouse, which is all about entrepreneurial training. It is everything from start ups, it is everything from businesses that want to grow from five to 10 and it is everything in between. So, it is relocation, it is entrepreneurial training and I know that Gazelle labs has been invited to that as well as SBA and all these other organizations to really try to grow businesses in the City of St. Petersburg and how we take care of entrepreneurs and their preparation as they go on. It is a partnership that we've established with USF St. Petersburg to make sure that they are teaching a curriculum here, whether it is here, St. Pete College, Eckerd College, to make sure that we are teaching the curriculums and having it available to our local students to where the jobs are actually out there. When they get their degree they are not asking, 'Do you want to super size that?,' but that they actually have a job within their trained field waiting for them when they graduate.
Kriseman: Thank you all for coming tonight. This is an important debate. We already have the Tampa Bay Innovation Center which has been in existence for a number of years and has been involved in the incubators in helping to really start to grow the businesses here. But, we also do need to expand our involvement with USF St. Pete, with Eckerd College, with St. Pete College and all the universities that we have in our area because I don't think we have really taken advantage of the talent pool that we've got potentially to work with. We also need to look at the way that we as a city do business and the rules and regulations that we put in place and what roadblocks are we putting for businesses that want to move here, that want to locate and try and grow. In addition, I think it's important to work with our local financial institutions to try and free up dollars so that those businesses, who do want to locate here, have the resources, and those that are already here, have the opportunity, especially in tough times to get those resources they need.
Foster (Rebuttal): Mr. Kriseman mentioned the Tampa Bay Innovation Center and through a partnership with that organization and The Greenhouse we within the next week I think will have the unveiling of, I think it is called, "The One Millionth Cup of Coffee Initiative," to where two start up companies get to pitch their product or pitch their business in front of entrepreneurs, in front of mentors and they get to have this experience with a mentor, with the business community for support. I think that's an exciting initiative.
Q. Some small business owners assert that companies west of MLK are largely ignored by the city and often are struggling. Do you agree with this assertion and what, if anything, can the city do to help independent business owners outside the downtown corridor survive and flourish?
Kriseman: Yes, I do agree with that. One of the things that I have done during this campaign is called a small business tour where I've gone to businesses all over the city, but in particular outside the downtown area. It has been fascinating because when I ask them, 'Has anyone from the city ever visited your business to find out how you are doing and what they can do to help you?' The answer is, 'No.' And actually, I should correct that. The answer is yes and it is typically codes. So, the one visit they have with someone
from the city is someone telling them something that they're doing wrong, something that they need to fix. Instead of, how can we help you survive? What can we do as a city to make it easier for you to do business and survive? So, I do agree that we have not done a very good job and that is something in my administration that I will make a regular part of my time as mayor, is to do a small business tour, through the city, and I am not going to tell them when I am coming, so they are not prepared, so then I can get the real truth.
Foster: Naturally, I disagree with that assertion because when you think of the geography west of ML King, we have the Edge District which we are going to fund. Hopefully the council will approve my recommended budget. We are going to put about $24,000 in seed money to work with the Edge District to make sure they get established. You have Grand Central which I think is a thriving, beautiful, wonderful, artsy community of small businesses. Then, you go out to West Central and you look at this 34, I'm sorry this Central Avenue redevelopment plan, as you tie Boca Ciega Bay in with Tampa Bay and everything in between. So, we are actually looking at how can we help these small businesses, how can we connect them all together. And then, you look at 34th Street South redevelopment plan that we are going through now, to really tie in these businesses of 34th Street South. All of those are west of ML King and we have initiatives to make sure that they grow and prosper.
Kriseman (Rebuttal): They mayor mentioned his Greenhouse project and I am glad he has finally done that, but it took 1,648 days from the time he took office to the time that plan was unveiled. This Central Avenue corridor project is a very important project, but like a lot of things in the city right now, it is stuck in quicksand. It is not moving forward. Half the businesses that are along Central and I've knocked on a lot of doors, have no idea that plan is even in place or that there is something going on there. You can't get the businesses engaged if they don't even know what is happening.
Q. Are there any specific city departments and regulations that you feel should be changed to better support small business? If so, please give specific examples of the type of company who would benefit from that change.
Foster: Anything we can change we do. And so, I want to make sure that we have no impediments to job creation and economic development in the City of St. Petersburg. The Greenhouse and before that the Business Assistance Center, was very much a part of that and it took a while to get to The Greenhouse quite honestly because when I became mayor we had a chamber that was quite frankly dysfunctional. We had a chamber leadership that had been gutted. And so, it took awhile to find this visionary called Chris Steinocher and to rebuild trust into a St. Petersburg chamber that we felt comfortable doing business with. And really, working as partners. But, we remove impediments whether it is in construction and permitting, you remove impediments and you have somebody hand holding throughout this entire process. For the first two years of my administration we were able to lower taxes, so, we create these environments conducive to economic development. But yes, occasionally it is hand holding but sometimes it is just get out of the way and let them grow and let them come into fruition.
Kriseman: I will give you two specific examples of things we ought to be looking at. One does deal with permitting and while the city has gotten better there are still significant impediments in place. I have heard from talking to developers and I have had a number of conversations when I have been going around to different breakfast places, if you have one person that comes in and does an inspection and they tell you it isOK to do that, if that same person doesn't come back to to do inspection you may get a completely different answer as far as that it is approved. And, instead you might get flagged and that delays your project and it costs you money. And that makes it difficult. The second example I will give you is signage and there is a balance when we talk about signage. But, there is a business on 22nd, Eve's Boutique, that I visited. And they said that the one visit they had from the city was codes who told them they had to take their sign down. He said, 'Nobody knows I am here. How am I suppose to keep my doors open when people don't know I am here?' There has to be a solution, a compromise where we protect the integrity of the city but we allow a business to do business.
Foster (Rebuttal): We are doing a great job removing impediments and when I think of what construction and permitting was like when I took office...we've used technology now. We have online permitting and review processes and we worked through those challenges. It is the goal of this administration to get you your CO as soon as
possible. Yes, there are times where there are life safety issues with fire marshals and things like that but to remove these impediments, we've done that. It is not in our best interest to not get you your CO. You've got to be open for business.
Q. The City of St. Petersburg grants tax breaks to mega corporations like Walmart to develop property and create jobs within the city, should similar tax breaks be granted to small business?
Kriseman: The answer is yes. The small business in St. Petersburg, and we shouldn't be ashamed to say this, St. Pete is a city of small businesses. And, not that we want to turn away Fortune 500 companies, because we don't, we want to welcome them here too, but what gives us our unique character and flavor are small businesses like Three Birds and we ought to be looking for things that we can do to make it easier and if it is [offering incentives] then it is. For them to come here, to open up and to survive, it also means working with our financial institutions that we have, that are local here, to see, because there are times when it is tough to keep the doors open and you need just a little help. So, we need to be working with them too to try and help the small businesses. Yeah, I think we are a city of small businesses. We need to embrace that because it is what gives us our character.
Foster: We use the systems that are in place, the QTI, qualified targeted industries and these are tax credits for jobs created. High paying jobs, well paying jobs. The state system, and we use matching dollars, that involves the city, the county and the state of Florida. These processes were set down in place by Tallahassee. If they were broken, he (Foster points to Kriseman) had six years to fix it and he didn't, but I don't favor using general ad valorem fund dollars to give any types of credits to small businesses, the tax payer dollars. I do think we can find better ways to [offer incentives] by making it easier for the businesses to open, but these are credits. So, if there are credits and if there is a system in place where we can use our credits for job creation, then I would say yes. Now, depending upon which zone you are in, if you are in an enterprise zone you can get tax credits for every single job that you create. So, there are systems in place, depending upon where and the nature of the business. But general fund, not.
Kriseman (Rebuttal): When you look at small businesses in St. Petersburg and in general, typically the pay is bette and that is really where the majority of your folks are hired from the community. You can bring in your WalMarts and they will hire a bunch of people initially, but they are all low paying jobs and the future and the potential for growth is not the same. So, where we really see the biggest impacts on the community, both in jobs that are hired and in pay, are in small businesses.
Both candidates agreed they want to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, however, little discussion was held regarding the hot button topic that dominated the primaries, The Lens.
Following the panel question and answer portion of the debate, candidates entered a lightning round where they could only answer yes or no to questions.
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