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Optimism in 2021: Tampa and St. Pete mayors sit-down for a candid conversation

Exclusive sit-down interview with Bay Area mayors
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor
Posted at 11:40 AM, Dec 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-31 11:40:58-05

TAMPA — Tampa Mayor Jane Castor just finished her first year in office, while St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s been at the helm for the past six years.

Both cities are similar and different in their unique ways, just like Castor and Kriseman. And, when it comes to major issues our society faced in 2020, both agree on a lot.

The most obvious similarity between the two is their optimism. In 2020, humans from all walks of life faced down a new virus that upended our lives and shattered our security through routine.

In February concerns over a novel respiratory virus in Wuhan, China sparked concern. By March, the world closed down. Then came sickness and death, followed by record unemployment, civil unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd. And, finally, Tampa Bay Area got hit by a high-end tropical storm, ETA.

MAYOR JANE CASTOR

You could call Mayor Castor the new kid on the block, but she’s not. She spent 31 years working to protect citizens with the Tampa Police Department. Her last six were as chief.

We met Castor at Curtis Hixon Park for a socially distanced candid interview with the Riverwalk and the University of Tampa in the backdrop.

“I don’t know if you realized in 2019 when you won this position you would be facing a year of crisis essentially,” ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska said.

“I often say that nobody wrote anything about a pandemic in the mayor’s application but it is what it is, you take whatever comes your way,” Castor said.

Castor says years as a police officer prepared her for the uncertain world we are all living in.

“Probably my experience in law enforcement has really helped me out,” Castor said. “Because there you are, often dealing with the unknown and this year has really been a year of unknowns.”

The city launched the One Tampa Relief Fund to help businesses weather the COVID-19 storm.

Nearly $8-million of city money helped hundreds of businesses.

“Individuals are literally having the rugs pulled out from under them economically,” Castor said.

Looking back, she thinks the application process was too cumbersome.

“It was a success,” Castor said. “It was actually difficult to administer in the very beginning. I think we made it a little too onerous you know, people were trying to keep their businesses open. There were so many things going on in their lives that we needed to make that application process as simple as possible.”

MAYOR RICK KRISEMAN

Across the bay, we also met Kriseman, socially distanced, outside at a local park. Kriseman took office in 2014 with a vision to make St. Pete a “city of opportunity where the sun shines on all,” Kriseman said.

Kriseman has previously held office in the Florida House of Representatives serving District 53. Before that, he was a St. Pete City Council Member. A Florida Gator and graduate of the Stetson University College of Law, Kriseman’s vision for St. Pete is to “invest in people, not just places.”

People need help now more than ever.

"Small businesses are hanging on by a thread. How beneficial has the St. Pete Fighting Chance Fund been to keep them alive? Paluska asked Kriseman.

“It’s been very helpful, the businesses that received it all. I cant tell you how many thank you’s that I’ve received, my staff received, for providing that bridge,” Kriseman said.

St. Pete cobbled together nearly $7 milllion for their Fighting Chance Fund.

All that money was desperately needed and is now gone.

THE ISSUES

In 2021, a potential eviction crisis looms, food insecurity continues to starve families, and even with a COVID-19 vaccine pumping into people’s arms, many businesses won’t be able to survive the first months of 2021 and beyond.

Cases of COVID-19 are spiking across the Bay Area. Positive cases are well above the rate of 5% where health experts want it to be to stop the spread.

Both Castor and Kriseman are stepping up enforcement on mask use inside businesses where social distancing isn't possible.

"The better we do, the more quickly we’ll be able to get back to whatever normal is going to be in the future," Castor said. "A lot of people say you shouldn’t have restrictions, you shouldn’t have masks, you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that. You are just prolonging the inevitable and it’s just going to be that much longer and that much more damaging the longer we ignore it."

"We have been citing now for several months I think we’ve issued more, and I am not bragging when I say this cause I wish I didn’t issue one, but we’ve issued more than 200 citations," Kriseman said.

"Do you think they work? Paluska asked.

"I think for some it does for others its a cost of doing business," Kriseman said. "So, we are considering additional options that we have available to us to take against those businesses that have been multiple offenders that we’ve issued multiple citations to."

Both mayors will receive the COVID-19 vaccine but don't want to get it before high-risk individuals or frontline workers.

"I’d be more than happy to be one of the first ones to get it," Castor said. "Especially, if it's going to give others some comfort in taking it."

"I want it and want to get it," Kriseman said. "And, I'm happy to do it on camera to show that it's safe."

GEORGE FLOYD PROTESTS

This year also marked a major shift in how law enforcement police citizens. Riots broke out in Tampa the night of May 30 leading to violence in the streets, and dozens of businesses vandalized, some destroyed. The Champs Sports on East Fowler Avenue was burned to the ground along with a family-owned Vietnamese restaurant.

ABC Action News watched hundreds of people loot area stores while law enforcement was pinned down. Violent protesters began throwing rocks, bottles, bricks, and fireworks at officers surrounding University Mall. At the University Mall on May 30, Hillsborough County Deputy William Scobie was on the front line as hundreds of rioters put on a relentless attack lasting several hours.

Although protests in Tampa and St. Petersburg were mostly peaceful. Pockets of violence, at night, on both sides of the bay broke out.

"One thing became crystal clear and that is the Tampa Police Department has a great relationship with our community but they hadn’t continued that relationship to the younger generation and that was a lesson learned too," Castor said.

After years of debate, both departments spent millions to purchase body cameras for all officers. And, Tampa launched a community task force on policing.

St. Petersburg Police also took steps to change how they police the community.

Instead of using millions in funds earmarked to hire 25 new police officers, the department announced they would create a new division within the police department called the Community Assistance Liaison.

“So, we are going to have social workers in non-threatening situations, and that's really important we are not putting them at risk,” Kriseman said. “But, they are going to be going out, and handling calls is more appropriate for them than a police officer.”

Kriseman said officers will also undergo increased training and scrutiny.

“The better trained our men and women are the safer they are,” Kriseman said. “But, the second reason is the better trained our men and women are the safer our community is. That is when you have less mistakes and bad things happening, when our officers are better trained, we are going to continue to do that.”

CLIMATE CHANGE

Both mayors want to be at the forefront of battling climate change. In November tropical storm ETA flooded streets in downtown St. Pete and sent waves crashing over the seawall along Vinoy Park. In Tampa, Bayshore Boulevard flooded sending water right to the doorsteps of several homes in the area. Both Castor and Kriseman know a direct hit even from a category 1 hurricane would be catastrophic for the Bay Area.

In 2019, St. Petersburg launched the city’s first-ever Integrated Sustainability Action Plan. According to the city’s website, it will provide, “a blueprint to work on ambitious goals for a transition to 100% Clean Energy, environmental stewardship, resiliency, and racial justice while growing smart to have a thriving economy and quality of life for the residents of St. Pete."

In 2021, Tampa plans to release its first updated greenhouse gas inventory early 2021 and create a Climate Action and Equity Plan to focus on clean renewable energy moving forward.

2021 AND BEYOND

Both mayors tell us the challenge for 2021 will be working hard to make families and individuals whole again and helping people who lost everything get back on their feet and not fall deeper into debt or despair. Kriseman and Castor told Paluska they welcome feedback from their community and want everyone to play a role in making our community safer, stronger, and better. Both also say they see the glass half full, not half empty.

“I am always optimistic, I am the eternal optimist, you know you look at the innovation and the imagination since COVID-19,” Castor said.

“So, I am real excited,” Kriseman said. “I think the future even with this pandemic, even with the social unrest that we’ve had, I think the future in St. Petersburg is really bright. I’m very optimistic.”