A typically procedural meeting to approve year-end budget adjustments ended in debate as St. Petersburg City Council members discovered a $300,000 appropriation for an Albert Whitted Airport Economic Impact Study.
Mayor Ken Welch has discussed reevaluating the 100-acre, city-owned waterfront site’s usage since his first year in office. Council members and local stakeholders have voiced ardent, varying opinions on the nearly century-old municipal airport’s future.
In March, an evaluation committee selected consulting firm HR&A to conduct an economic impact study on the airport and its footprint in the expanding Innovation District. Progress essentially paused until the Nov. 27 budget “cleanup” meeting.
Councilmember Ed Montanari said Wednesday that he and other airport supporters believe the study is an attempt to “find a way to close the airport down and repurpose the land.”
Montanari added, “I didn’t want to approve any sort of money in the budget for a study of Albert Whitted Airport. So, that’s why I wanted to repurpose that money.”
The city council approved dedicating the $300,000 to the burgeoning Urban Tree Planting (UTP) program at the Nov. 27 meeting. After unexpected debate and withdrawn motions, the reallocation passed 4-3, with Councilmember John Muhammad absent.
City administrators included the $300,000 in the general fund’s fiscal year 2024 supplemental appropriations. Budget director Liz Makofske explained that the list is mostly budgeted items not purchased or completed before the new fiscal year.
Montanari said he did not see money for the study in the previously discussed budget. Makofske said administrators included $250,000 as a “consulting line” in the Economic and Workforce Development Department’s 2023 funding.
Makofske said prices “are going up,” and the consultant requested an additional appropriation. Montanari, a longtime proponent of increasing the city’s tree canopy, said he would like the UTP program to receive the money.
Councilmember Gina Driscoll also said the study funding was a last-minute surprise in the months-long budget process. “It certainly wasn’t brought up, and I would not have gone along with that,” she said.
“It’s been made clear that we don’t all agree on issues around the airport,” Driscoll added. “I like the idea of moving that to an urban tree planting program because that is certainly something we can all agree on.”
Council members disagreed on how they should reappropriate the funding. However, none spoke in favor of the airport study.
Administrator Rob Gerdes said the initiative stalled as city officials focused on momentous redevelopment projects – the Historic Gas Plant District, Tropicana Field and the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina. He called those “higher priorities.”
Even with the funding, Gerdes said the council would still need to approve the study in the spring, and work could begin next summer or fall. Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz noted that any recommended airport changes would then require a voter referendum.
“This has been coming up for a while, and it’s money sitting there,” Hanewicz said. “There are a lot of other big items happening in our city.”
Every council member expressed support for the tree canopy program. Many also said other initiatives were deserving of the money.
In addition, the council previously agreed that tree planting would begin in the underserved Child’s Park neighborhood, to mitigate pollution. The pilot program also awaits a study to determine the most effective citywide strategy.
Multiple council members said they were unprepared to vote on reallocating the money. Vice Chair Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she also supports “homeless children and other efforts that we can make an immediate impact with this year.”
Councilmembers Driscoll, Hanewicz, Montanari and Copley Gerdes voted to transfer the economic impact study’s funding to the Urban Tree Program. Councilmembers Figgs-Sanders, Brandi Gabbard and Richie Floyd dissented.