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Mark R. Howard | 10/1/2006
From my window here at Florida Trend's main office, I can see close to $100-million worth of new investment without using my peripheral vision. Spread over just a few blocks, there's a new bank, a new apartment complex, two new condo developments, a condo-converted apartment building, a shopping center, a grocery store, a pharmacy, a parking garage and a university dormitory -- none of which existed six years ago -- along with at least half a dozen older apartment buildings that have had face-lifts or refurbishments.

Within that same field of vision, six construction cranes are now hoisting two condo buildings and a hospital into the sky. Collectively, it's an impressive set of monuments to market forces, and a microcosm of the economic development across Florida in the past few years, from Miami to Jacksonville to Pensacola.

About a mile away from my window, in what St. Petersburg now calls the Midtown neighborhood, is another cluster of development. Just south and west of downtown St. Pete, Midtown encompasses about 5.5 square miles and some 20,000 residents, most African-Americans, most poor. It had a richer mix of incomes and a healthy business and social district in the days of more rigidly enforced segregation. As barriers fell, middle-class blacks spread out into the broader community, and competition shredded the small-business base. Like many communities with large numbers of poor African-Americans, Midtown became a neighborhood without a grocery store or a bank, with big social problems and few signs that anybody in the broader community cared much one way or the other.

In 1996, after the police confronted and killed a young car thief, the area blew up. The shooting, burning and looting that once would have qualified as a "riot" were linguistically resculpted by newspapers into more benign-sounding "racial disturbances." But they did get the city's attention, if slowly.

Rick Baker, St. Petersburg's mayor since 2001, has made the redevelopment of Midtown a priority. After he was initially elected, he got input from residents of Midtown about what the neighborhood most needed and has gone about delivering it with a sense of urgency. He named Goliath Davis, the town's former police chief who grew up in Midtown, as deputy mayor for the area, and the two have made an effective odd-couple tag team. Baker wants everything done yesterday; Davis, occasionally rolling his eyes, pushes the process along while keeping Baker's feet on the ground.

Over the course of Baker's tenure, the city has funneled $100 million in state, federal and local money into Midtown. There's a new health center and a new library (the previous library bounced around among various temporary sites including a lodge and community center). An old entertainment venue, the Royal Theater, has been renovated as a Boys and Girls Club. One big accomplishment was getting the U.S. Postal Service to renovate an existing postal annex into a full-service post office where people could buy stamps, rent p.o. boxes and mail packages without having to make a trek downtown. The Postal Service turned down Baker's first request for the renovation -- get in line, it said; it didn't have the money. It then turned him down again when he offered to pay for the renovation if the Postal Service would just provide staff. Only after Baker turned to Gov. Jeb Bush, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Reps. Jim Davis and Bill Young for help and coughed up $250,000 in community development money did the Postal Service finally agree. It took 4 1/2 years.

The signature development in Midtown, however, is the Tangerine Plaza shopping center, where the Sweetbay grocery chain has opened a store and where SunTrust will shortly open a branch bank. Over five years, Baker's team learned about siting grocery stores, put together the parcel and found a young African-American developer, Larry Newsome, who got some advisory help from development heavyweight Sembler Co. The shops are bright, clean, safe and within walking distance for a lot of people who used to need a taxi to get to the store. However modest, it's a big step forward for Midtown -- an essential part of the civic foundation needed to displace the hopelessness that underlies so many problems there. It's remarkable in any event for the persistence and diligence that have gone into the effort: If there are other Florida communities and mayors that can boast of opening a fancy new grocery store, post office and a bank in the heart of their most economically depressed neighborhood, I am unaware of them.

Baker is an interesting guy. A gangly 6 feet 8 inches, amiable, slow-moving and soft-spoken, he's short on flash but long on energy. An attorney and a Republican, Baker has worked the whole spectrum of the mayor's job. He's had an impact on everything from small-picture administrative issues -- cutting sidewalk repair times from months to a few days, for example -- to big-picture leadership strategies like forging perhaps the most extensive network of partnerships between city schools and local businesses in the state. Relentlessly -- some say promiscuously -- pro-business, he's presided over the resurgence of St. Pete's downtown and a newly thriving arts and cultural scene. Baker even has shown a knack for political dealmaking, working out a compromise with his friend Jeb Bush this year that preserved from Bush's veto state funding to relocate the Dali Museum to a new site downtown.

And then there's the seed of hope in Midtown. While it's noteworthy, I suppose, that a Republican mayor has taken such a keen interest in developing such a non-Republican neighborhood, that's not the point here. First, it's more instructive that such a believer in the power of rising economic tides also understood well that they don't rise uniformly for everybody. The fact is that the market forces that have flexed their muscles so powerfully before my window never would have gotten to Midtown without Baker's attention and direction.

Second, Baker's example reminds us that paying attention can produce results -- that political leadership and effective use of government can improve people's lives. It's a good lesson in this political season as Florida chooses a new governor and a new crop of legislators -- a reminder that Jeb Bush didn't corner the market on thinking big and aiming high.

Tags: Politics & Law, Editor's column, Tampa Bay, Government/Politics & Law

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