Tampa Bay’s Community Social Leader, the Florida Economic Club, gave Mayor Ken Welch the opportunity to discuss pressing issues in St. Petersburg.
The club’s community leader social events are a regional affair as they alternate monthly locations between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. At Wednesday night’s event, held at Sea Salt St. Pete, Welch shared his final thoughts on the Albert Whitted Airport, Tropicana Field redevelopment – including the funding benefit of the stadium in the city compared to Tampa – and the need to maintain affordable housing and labor.
The future of Albert Whitted Airport in downtown St. Petersburg has recently been the subject of much discussion in the city. In August, an evaluation committee voted to rescind Welch’s request for qualification (RFQ) from consultants to evaluate uses on the 100-acre waterfront site due to a lack of responses and an indefinite scope. On Sept. 1, city leaders discussed rejecting federal money for projects and self-funding to avoid a new commitment to maintain the airport — an idea rejected by several officials.
“I think the rest of the community should speak up about the best use of this property,” Welch said. “I could see an expansion of our waterfront park system on part of it. I can see USF expansion on the other end. We have the hub (Maritime and Defense Technology) which could develop.
He added that the company adopting electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft could also reduce the airport’s footprint.
Regarding equity and access, Welch noted that her daughter was a newborn when former mayor Rick Baker broached the idea of new apps for the Albert Whitted site in 2003. She is now 20 years old and he explained that she had never set foot in the airport – which offers no commercial service.
He called the ratio of people in St. Petersburg who benefit from the airport unacceptable. While he realizes it may not be a popular choice with many residents and city leaders, Welch wants to continue exploring other uses with community input.
Tropicana Field Redevelopment
As a child of the old gasworks neighborhood, he reaffirmed the need to remember the promises the city made when it razed the neighborhood to make way for a baseball stadium and new developments. He cited the results of a structural study on racism and disparities, a changing marketplace and a lack of communication with the Tampa Bay Rays as reasons he re-launched the request for proposals (RFP) process for the 86-acre Tropicana Field site.
“I think there’s a way forward where everyone wins,” Welch said. “Where all businesses – minority businesses, small businesses – have a role in what will be more than a decade of redevelopment.”
St. Petersburg, Welch noted, was the last city to build one of the old “big-box” stadiums. He called the timing “awful”, but said the sprawling site was the right place for a smaller, more modern venue that connects to the city centre.
Welch said team management has expressed where they would like a stadium on the 86 acres – but that’s not the current location.
He explained that the county contributed $100 million from its bed tax to help build Tropicana Field, and he will seek a percentage of that funding to build a new stadium “at the right time.”
“That’s another reason I’m confident,” Welch said. “Hillsborough doesn’t have the bed tax that we have. They don’t have the beaches that we have.
While many problems existed before he became mayor, Welch explained, St. Petersburg has a stormwater problem.
“No politician wants to go to a ribbon cutting for a sewer,” he said. “Across the country, we ignored our infrastructure, and now we pay for it as extreme weather occurs.”
St. Petersburg, Welch said, has a $3 billion water body to repair pipelines and treatment plants. He said water bills would continue to rise to pay for needed improvements. The city is also reallocating $9 million in annual Penny for Pinellas funding that would otherwise go to parks, libraries and community centers.
Welch said he was working with the federal government to acquire additional funds to alleviate the need to use county taxpayer dollars — a previous goal of former deputy mayor Stephanie Owens.
Welch began his presentation by telling local business leaders how, as a student at Florida A&M University, he wondered if young people would want to return to St. Petersburg. After experiencing exponential growth and revitalization, he now wonders if they could afford to return to the city.
The mayor said he liked to drive downtown from the freeway and see several construction cranes, but noted that these were mostly luxury or market-rate developments. While he called people moving to the city with disposable income a “good thing,” he said the city must maintain affordable housing and labor or risk losing its authenticity. and his identity.
Welch recounted how the city recently won two awards for its efforts at the recent Florida Housing Coalition conference, one of which was for becoming the first municipality to use a house bill that allows for the conversion of properties to industrial zone into affordable housing.
He said the Fairfield Avenue apartments, which once housed Tibbets Lumber, will provide units for those earning as little as $12.50 an hour.
“The median income here is around $50,000,” Welch said. “So about half of the people earn less than that. Where are the places where these people can live? If we don’t focus on that, we will become a different community.
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