MAXWELL:  Safety is a key to revitalization

2/8/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As St. Petersburg officials and community leaders try to rebuild the city’s riot zone, they should stay apprised of events and the lack of real progress in south-central Los Angeles nearly five years after the Rodney King riots. In those disturbances, 53 people died and 700 Korean businesses were burned at a cost of $150-million.

Obviously, the damage in St. Petersburg does not compare to that in Los Angeles. But many of the conditions that sparked the Los Angeles violence and the subsequent lack of progress there exist here in St. Petersburg.

In Los Angeles, the “fear factor” _ the lack of a sense of personal safety _ continues to drive away Korean-Americans and other business owners. Economic development experts and community leaders estimate that the number of businesses owned by Korean-Americans alone has fallen by a quarter to a half since the riots. The number is still dropping.

Many of these owners, who lost everything in 1992, fear that such violence can and will recur and are moving from the riot sector to protect their investments. Perhaps more ominous than the flight of Korean-Americans is the exodus of middle-class and working-class blacks. They have always anchored African-American communities with their buying power, their stability, their educational achievement and other values that other residents, especially youngsters, can emulate.

St. Peterburg has a similar problem. From 1980 to 1990, about 20,000 people _ many of them middle-class and working-class blacks _ moved out of south-central St. Petersburg, taking with them enormous buying power and their stabilizing influence, said Tony Collins, director of economic development for the city of St. Petersburg. Collins’ main goals are to bring old businesses back to the area after the riots and to continue to attract new companies. Collins faces many hurdles, even with the prospect of garnering federal dollars. St. Petersburg officials and community leaders, like their counterparts in Los Angeles, must work to assure shoppers and merchants that the riot zone is safe.

And therein lies a major problem, if the Chattaway Drive-In and Atwater’s Cafeteria, two popular eateries on 22 Avenue S, are good barometers. The manager of the Chattaway said that because of the riots, business has fallen nearly 75 percent at night and about 30 to 40 percent during the day. The violence also has hurt Atwater’s, which is black-owned.

Mayor David Fischer and other officials are correct in trying to revitalize the area and involving a wide range of voices in discussions. And black leaders are wise to hold a communitywide, agenda-setting convention today. As they plan, however, these leaders should remember that customers and shoppers are destiny.

But customers and shoppers will not spend in neighborhoods where they feel unsafe. Personal safety should become a major part of the new economic mantra. Otherwise, south-central St. Petersburg will remain an economic wasteland like its counterpart in south-central Los Angeles.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.