St. Pete Beach Leaders Ponder City’s Identity

Commissioners cite city’s strengths, weaknesses during strategic planning session

ST. PETE BEACH — At a recent strategic planning meeting, city officials were adamant that they don’t want St. Pete Beach known as a Spring Break mecca like Clearwater Beach — but they also don’t want the city to have a reputation as a sleepy bedroom community like Redington Beach.

“We are basically a gulf coast beach town; we just happen to have a large resort component stuck in the middle,” Mayor Al Johnson said.

Commissioner Doug Izzo noted, “I hear a lot of people say we don’t want to be another Clearwater Beach, and I think we are all in agreement — nobody wants that.”

Added Commissioner Melinda Pletcher, “We are a family vacation destination … We don’t want to be Daytona Beach, Clearwater Beach or Redington Beach.”

Commissioners and staff met for a special strategic planning meeting Nov. 13 to begin charting the city’s future, but first they had to enumerate its strengths and weaknesses.

Commissioner Ward Friszolowski said one of the city’s strengths is its beaches and the fact that it is a full-service city. “We offer services not all cities offer; that makes us a better city,” he said.

Johnson said another big plus is the city’s financial strength, good credit rating and low long-term debt, along with having an experienced and well-organized staff operation.

While Commissioner Doug Izzo praised the fact that “on-line permitting technology is moving in the right direction,” City Manager Alex Rey said that city staff still felt technology was a weakness overall. “We are really behind the times in terms of the technology that’s out there that we could be using to facilitate how we do business,” he said.

Izzo told fellow commissioners the city has been “stagnant” for 12 years or more and has a sleepy town reputation that needs to change.

Johnson said people have told him they have gone to the community development department to get a permit “and they walk out with a list of stuff they have to get. (They) come back and then they get more stuff added to the list. That, to me, is a weakness where we can improve.”

Another weakness, the mayor noted, is that the city has “a pretty tired infrastructure,” though he also said that presented an opportunity because “we have a lot of work to do.”

Pletcher said a weakness is the stagnant look of 1950s-style strip malls and some homes because of a lack of redevelopment. Johnson said, however, the remodeling of smaller hotels into 1950s retro themes was a plus.

Commissioners said the lack of a big hotel brand name on the beach is a hindrance to attracting some visitors. Johnson agreed.

Izzo praised the city for recently taking the initiative to hire a public information officer to get the word out about the city on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the city’s webpage.

“Our struggle has been forever and ever that delicate balance that St. Pete Beach has tried to navigate in maintaining that nice balance between commercial and residential,” Pletcher said.

Friszolowski noted there is concern that overdevelopment will harm the character of the city, and Johnson said the idea to redevelop and still maintain the character of St. Pete Beach “is a challenge.”

Commissioners said there are many opportunities to revitalize the Corey Avenue and 8th Avenue business districts as well as the Dolphin Village-County Park area.

Assistant City Manager Vince Tenaglia said during the next few months staff will work on formulating a strategic plan that will be broken into four categories.

The first category will be designing ways to foster economic development, which will include business retention and expansion, promoting the arts and branding the city for promotion.

A second priority will involve improving internal operations by maximizing strengths in the area of community services and setting priorities.

The city will also address its resiliency, preservation of its infrastructure and preparing for a worst-case scenario in case a recession hits. One specific item they will prepare for is a financial shortfall should parking revenue drop, because people are utilizing ride services like Uber to get to the beach.

Another group will focus on preservation of community neighborhoods.

Commissioners and staff will hold more public meetings in the future to continue formulating a fluid strategic plan.