Click the arrow above to listen to the full interview between former St. Petersburg City Council Chair Charlie Gerdes and St. Pete Catalyst Finance Editor Margie Manning.
During the eight years Charlie Gerdes served on the St. Petersburg City Council, the city underwent a renaissance that was beyond his imagination when he first took office in early 2012.
Gerdes credits the city’s “creative class” — artists, writers and musicians — who continued to believe in the city during the recession.
“Those folks solidified a belief and a hope of where St. Petersburg could go. Their entrepreneurialism was contagious. When storefronts were vacant and rents went down, they rented those storefronts and believed this was an opportunity for them, and that belief caught on to other businesses,” Gerdes said in an interview with the St. Pete Catalyst, just days before he left office on Jan. 2, 2020 due to term limits. “They risked, they had dreams they wanted to come true and a lot of other peoples’ dreams came along with them.”
An increase in students living on campus at University of South Florida St. Petersburg also has energized downtown, said Gerdes, who served twice as City Council Chair, including during 2019. Students mingling with other residents created an “unforeseen magic” that gave a lot of energy to downtown, he said. “That energy was noticed and attracted folks.”
He’s proud of his contributions to the city’s new police headquarters and the Pier, as well as an expansion at Abercrombie Park in the Jungle Terrace neighborhood.
One of his proudest accomplishments was creation of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, which was innovative and risky. “We’re not investing in buildings and infrastructure. We’re investing in people, workforce development, education, early childhood, those kinds of things,” Gerdes said. “I think we were maybe one of the first CRAs in the state to take that approach. The CRA is generating substantially more income than anyone had predicted, so I think that’s a good sign that people are believing in the mission.”
In early August, Gerdes played a key role in postponing a potential private commercial redevelopment at Commerce Park, a long-vacant tract in the South St. Petersburg CRA, saying he first wanted to hear from residents of the area about the plan. During a City Council debate, Gerdes said he did not believe his “white privileged background” knew what was best for the area. Four months later, in December, Mayor Rick Kriseman unveiled plans for a new development that partners the city with the community.
The Catalyst asked Gerdes about that pivotal moment when he took a lead role in putting the private development plans on hold.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that I’m good at listening. I’m not an idea person. I’m the person who listens to what’s going on and tries to fit ideas together,” Gerdes said. “What became obvious to me in my first term [on the City Council] was solutions and consensus building and discussions about where to head in that community were on a different dimension than my life history brought to me. Solutions and consensus building that worked in a lot of other environments did not work when it came to that community and that area. It’s because their life experience is so disparate from mine … Once that light bulb went off, I thought it was very important to admit it and to point out that we needed to take a different approach with that community because the lens is different.”
Gerdes speaks often about his faith and his family, and he told the Catalyst he considers the city a family, too.
“The more willing you are to understand that we’re all in this together and what helps one person helps another and what hurts one person hurts another — the more we can do that, the better off we’ll be for everyone reaching their dreams,” Gerdes said.
Gerdes said he won’t seek political office again, but he has told Kriseman he would be willing to help out on projects during the mayor’s last two years in office. Gerdes, an attorney at Keane Reese Gerdes in St. Petersburg, plans to continue practicing law, but also is looking forward to retirement in the next couple of years, when he wants to spend time with his five grandchildren.