Rick Baker asked why his city's downtown boom couldn't spread to the neighborhoods.
Anyone who visited St. Petersburg in 2001, when Rick Baker became mayor, might have a hard time recognizing the downtown now. Baker led the development of the successful Bay Walk retail-and-entertainment complex, helped relocate the Salvador Dali museum and preserved the waterfront along Tampa Bay for public use, all of which has sparked an impressive development boom.
Under a different mayor, such attention to downtown might have worsened a political fault line between neighborhood advocates and downtown interests. But if anything, Baker has paid even more attention to St. Petersburg's neighborhoods. His brand of inclusiveness is one reason why a reliably Democratic city re-elected this Republican mayor in 2005 with 70 percent of the vote. Baker carried every precinct — including the city's African-American neighborhoods and its prickly West Side, which in previous elections had had a habit of supporting mayoral challengers.
Baker created a position for a deputy mayor in charge of Midtown, a low-income, African-American neighborhood, and filled it with Goliath Davis, the city's first black police chief. They brought a new library, theater, post office, health center and college campus to the area, spurring shopping centers and private retail chains to move in as well. While poverty and drug abuse remain high there, violent crime has dropped and dozens of businesses have opened up.
Baker has paid close attention to other, better-off neighborhoods as well. But his most widely noticed achievement may lie in expanding the city's overall infrastructure of parks, bike trails, public swimming pools and playgrounds — St. Petersburg is on course to have a playground within a half-mile walk of every home in the city. "The reason people are here is because of the quality of life of the city," Baker says. "Everything we do, we should be advancing that quality of life to make people like it even more."
One part of the civic infrastructure on which Baker has lavished special attention isn't even the city's: The public schools are run by the Pinellas County School Board. Unwilling to spend scarce time and political capital on trying to gain control of the city's schools, Baker instead has used the mayoralty to muster civic attention to improving them. He has raised more than $11 million in donations; overseen the awarding of more than 750 college scholarships to low-income students; recruited corporate partners for every public school in the city; created a fund to reward principals whose schools perform well on the state's grading system for schools; created a loan program for teachers who want to buy homes in St. Petersburg; and recruited 1,000 mentors for students — including himself. "We've gotten spoiled with what he's been able to do," says Terry Boehm, president of the Pinellas Education Foundation. "He's going to be a tough act to follow."
— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by Jay Carlson