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St. Pete’s deputy mayor goes deep on infrastructure, health, jobs and diversity

Margie Manning

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Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin (left) with Nina Mahmoudi, St. Petersburg marketing manager
Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin (left) with Nina Mahmoudi, St. Petersburg marketing director

A focus on culture in St. Petersburg has shifted to a focus on infrastructure.

The city is investing heavily in roads and bridges and pipes and other “invisible things” that make a city strong, said Deputy Mayor and City Administrator Kanika Tomalin.

“We’re having to invest in our public works administration at a rate that I would say is probably 10 times more than has been invested over the past 50 years,” Tomalin said at the Urban Land Institute’s Women’s Leadership Initiative in St. Petersburg Jan. 17.

About 50 professionals, primarily in real estate and development, listened in as Tomalin and Nina Mahmoudi, St. Petersburg’s marketing director, had a candid and often personal conversation about city priorities and accomplishments.

Every century a city makes big changes, Tomalin said. St. Petersburg, which re-incorporated in 1903, is at that point, she said.

“There are so many people coming to the city and developing huge projects, and thank God, because we’re at the place where about every 100 years, a city has to re-establish its infrastructure. It has to dig deep and invest in the invisible things that make a city strong,” Tomalin said. “In the previous 20 years, we were able to do a lot of work on building our culture and that’s very important. In the next 20 years, we’re going to have to do a lot of work on building the things that will make this a resilient city, although it’s a coastal city that is facing all the challenges and hazards of a change in climate.”

The city has a $300 million infrastructure plan in place. As of last fall, the city already had spent about $215 million on sewer issues, a city spokesman said.

“This is why it matters that we have so many people coming into our city now, investing in big ways,” Tomalin said. “Because when a city has to put its money into roads and into pipes and into bridges, you need philanthropic titans to put money and thought and vision and effort and energy into things like museums and culture and quality of life. And that’s happening.”

Examples are the recently opened James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, and the soon-to-open Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, all privately funded.

“We’re going to need that more and more. We’re going to need the corporate entities that call St. Pete home to take on ownership of the quality of life here at the next level, that takes us to the next place,” Tomalin said.

Health lens

Tomalin’s signature initiative is Healthy St. Pete, which has made community health a priority. She was a vice president at Bayfront Health Network and director of strategy for Health Management Association’s 23-hospital Florida group when she was tapped by newly elected Mayor Rick Kriseman as one of his first hires in 2014.

“I had a career path that was pretty solid. I was going to be the CEO of a hospital. Health is my passion. The mayor asked me to come into this role as deputy mayor and it was an opportunity that I couldn’t say no to, but I couldn’t do it at a complete sacrifice to the work I thought was so important, and that was creating a healthier community. I told him that and he said, ‘No problem, we’ll find a way to make it work in the city,’” Tomalin said.

Health is now incorporated into everything the city does. “Every policy we do, every dollar we invest, every initiative that we start has a health lens applied to it. We look at what is the difference this is going to make as it relates to creating a healthier community,” Tomalin said.

The new St. Pete Pier, slated to open this spring, and the recently opened St. Petersburg Police headquarters are other key accomplishments. So is the creation of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, established to promote reinvestment in housing, commercial corridors, business and workforce development.

“One of the first commitments Mayor Kriseman and I made to each other and to the city was to use our time to invest in our people as much as we invest in places,” she said. The South St. Petersburg CRA “revolutionizes the way our community understands, interacts and shifts the trajectory of poverty … It will continue regardless of who sits in the mayor’s seat because we’ve hard-wired the processes into the city. It won’t have a building to show for it, but lives are changed.”

The CRA has been key to reducing poverty in the city, Tomalin said, citing statistics from the Jan. 15 State of the Economy presentation.

Also important to cutting poverty is the Grow Smarter initiative, which targets business development and job creation in five industry sectors —  marine and life sciences, specialized manufacturing, financial services, data analytics and creative arts and design.

“Historically St. Pete has been a hospitality and tourism-based economy, which creates a lot of wealth disparity. People who own those assets become very wealthy. The people who serve those assets are not in the position to ever accumulate wealth in a meaningful way,” Tomalin said. “So we looked at alternative areas for economic growth and identified five sectors where it was possible to shift the trajectory to high-skill, high-wage jobs for everybody in our community.”

Diversity

Tomalin touched on more personal topics. She has deep family ties to the city. Her two children – one in high school and one in college – are the sixth generation of her family to live in St. Petersburg. Her husband, Terry Tomalin, was the outdoors editor for the Tampa Bay Times when he died after a heart attack in 2016. Sue Brody, the former CEO at Bayfront, was a key mentor.

Tomalin recalled that her first day on the job at Bayfront was the day that Brody was preparing for a news conference to announce that Bayfront was going to leave the BayCare Health System.

“I was standing in my cubicle wondering what was going on … She looked at me and said, ‘What’s your name and where are you working?’ It was in the foundation, and she said, ‘Come. You’ll learn a lot,’” Tomalin said. “We talked about that moment a lot and she said she thought that I was watching with a lot of intensity and curiosity and wanted to know, so she wanted me to know. I’ve tried to be that type of leader. I try to make people understand that people are there because we need them.”

The city’s vision statement, developed early in Kriseman’s administration, is designed to convey to the city’s 3,000 employees that each of them has a vital role to play in making St. Petersburg a “city of opportunity.”

One of the values behind the vision statement is a celebration of diversity and inclusion. That goes beyond race and gender to include diversity of backgrounds and thought, said Tomalin, who is the first African American, female deputy mayor and city administrator. Many leadership positions in finance and technology that typically go to men are held by women in city government. The mayor’s cabinet is the most diverse it has ever been, as is the City Council.

“This is not serendipity … It takes a lot of intentionality, a lot of purpose and a lot of understanding of the importance of why it matters. I can tell you that I am a part of a lot of conversations that would unfold differently if I were not sitting at the table, without question,” Tomalin said. “We’re seeing diversity increase in every corner of the city, and we understand that’s what makes us stronger.”

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