St. Pete Beach mayor wants to keep protecting city’s small coastal-island charm

Mayor Al Johnson describes St. Pete Beach as “a full-service city on a little sandbar.”

Beach People

Beach People is an occasional feature focusing on notable figures from and around Pinellas County beaches

ST. PETE BEACH — Mayor Al Johnson says he plans to run for a second three-year term in the election to be held in March.

His aim is to improve infrastructure while preserving the special character of the city’s neighborhood districts and its coastal-island charm.

“To me what is priceless is the fact that we are a full-service city on a little sandbar,” Johnson said proudly. “St. Pete Beach is a city with a wonderful history; everything you would need or want to buy you can find right here on the island.”

St. Pete Beach stands out among all others, Johnson said, because it has a defined tourist district, a commercial district, and then a series of close-knit neighborhoods. Its hotel and motel district, with taller buildings, is clearly confined to a certain area along Gulf Boulevard, and its neighborhoods are protected from development in its Comprehensive Plan and zoning documents, he explained.

When it comes to being mayor, Johnson said he likes “knowing that I can help people. Sometimes I just know the right people to go to. I also like to make the island better by focusing on getting things done right, while sometimes that takes a little longer than I would like.

“It’s a more gratifying and rewarding job than I expected,” he said. “When a project is completed or you help someone with a problem, it is very satisfying.”

Before being elected mayor in March 2017, Johnson served for two years on the Recreation Board starting in 2010, then on the Finance and Budget Board from 2012 to 2017.

Battling new bus project

He said he wants to continue to protect the small coastal-island charm that attracted him to St. Pete Beach, which includes fighting the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s plan to extend Bus Rapid Transit onto the island.

PSTA can bring passengers from St. Petersburg onto the island, but then “we will take it from there,” he said. Trolleys can ferry passengers along Gulf Boulevard, he said.

Johnson said trolley service is not new to the island. The city currently contracts with PSTA for service by its Beach Trolley and Central Avenue Trolley.

“Our residents don’t want BRT buses. Business people in both the commercial and tourist districts say it’s not necessary, so why would we want them on our island?” he asked.

Johnson said the city manager is still in talks with PSTA officials over contract negotiations. However, so far PSTA has nixed his plan for St. Pete Beach, South Pasadena and St. Petersburg officials to meet together with the transit authority to design a joint agreement.

A big point of contention remains the city’s desire for PSTA to turn its buses around just after entering the island at 75th Avenue; PSTA wants buses to continue along Gulf Boulevard and turn around at the county park near 64th Avenue.

The mayor believes the next few years will bring major improvements to the city water and wastewater system, along with a series of beautification efforts and placing electrical wires underground.

Undertaking major water and sewer infrastructure projects will put the city on course for more economic development in its commercial and tourist districts. Expansion and improvements to the wastewater system will enable the city to end its building moratorium in its hotel district. Additional hotels, and the ability to redesign existing structures in the tourist district, will increase the city’s tax base and lessen the burden on homeowners, Johnson said.

He added the city is going to be mindful to impact residents as little as possible.

In another big project, the city will undertake a major restoration of its library, which will have to be relocated for a few months while the work is completed. The library building has a historic significance for many, he said.

Johnson said St. Pete Beach is a major tourist attraction and economic engine for the county. With 10,000 residents, and 8,000 to 10,000 seasonal residents, the island also welcomes more than 30,000 tourists each year. In 2017 it was estimated the island raised $40 million in county bed taxes and sales taxes; the city would like to get some of the tax money it pays into the county back to fund improvements and services.

Johnson said he is lobbying county officials to get some of those funds returned to the city for special projects and economic development.

“There’s a lot to be done in the next few years,” he said.

Born and raised near Worcester, Massachusetts, Johnson graduated from Lowell Technical Institute, which is now part of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, with a degree in mechanical engineering. He put himself through college by working in a factory from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. and then painting houses or putting on roofs from 3 p.m. until sunset.

After graduation, Johnson said, he was lucky to land a job with General Electric in its power systems business; he spent the next ten years in Schenectady, N.Y., before being relocated to GE’s Tampa office in 1979. He worked as an executive in the division that services turbine generators and boilers, and handled design engineering, project management, international sales, service and construction and contract negotiation.

He got his first taste of life on St. Pete Beach in 1986 when he joined a group from Florida Power that would get together to run through the island once a week.

In 1993, as a divorced dad raising a daughter, he bought a house in Oldsmar, promising himself he would move to St. Pete Beach once his daughter went off to college.

In 1998 she left for the University of Central Florida and he started looking for a beach town in which to settle.

In June 1998, he settled in St. Pete Beach with his second wife Wendy, who died from cancer in 2010.

Johnson said they looked at houses from Madeira Beach south to Treasure Island, but ultimately decided on St. Pete Beach because it has commercial districts with plenty of amenities and restaurants, but also a unique coastal small-town charm with defined residential neighborhoods.

Johnson and his wife started the St. Pete Beach Classic run in 2003 and Motion Sports Management. Johnson is still active in the St. Pete Beach Classic, which he sees as a tribute to his late wife, to whom he was married for 12 years.

Johnson, who retired from GE in 2005 after 35 years, is still an avid runner and bicyclist. He said many times he tours city projects on his bicycle for exercise.

He mainly enjoys chatting with residents as well as visitors about St. Petersburg Beach. He hosts a town meeting at the library on the second and fourth Mondays from 6 to 7 p.m. and keeps everyone updated his Facebook page.