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Area mayors speak candidly at State of the Bay

Mark Parker



Mayors at Tiger Bay. From left, Jane Castor, Ken Welch and Brian Aungst. Photo by Mark Parker.

Affordable housing, professional baseball, divisiveness and maintaining a unique identity amid exponential growth are topics dominating discourse among the 2.5 million people who call Hillsborough and Pinellas County home.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch and Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. candidly addressed those issues and many more at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s annual State of the Bay event. The Vinoy Resort & Golf Club on St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront hosted a sold-out crowd Thursday night that featured myriad elected officials from both sides of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory moderated the mayoral panel. Gregory began her pointed questions by asking Castor if she is lagging far beyond her stated affordable housing goal, as a recent news report claimed.

“There was some, I’ll say, misleading information in there,” Castor said. “I stand by our team. They work their ass off every day …”

Castor elaborated that rehabbing homes to keep people in place is a priority that does not increase the number of units. She said the pandemic and soaring costs impeded new construction and that the city has dedicated $150 million to affordable housing initiatives.

Gregory noted that the average monthly rent for a 370-square-foot apartment in St. Petersburg is around $2,000. Welch also stressed the importance of preserving existing homes and hopes to maintain and build 8,000 units by 2030.

Welch said local government “cannot solve the problem alone.” He believes mitigating the affordability crisis requires state and federal assistance and extensive public-private partnerships.

“We have to educate folks – if you’re in a home, understand the worth of that,” Welch added. “Because if you sell it, you can’t buy anything comparable.”

Morton Plant Hospital officials are planning a massive expansion in Clearwater, and Aungst said he is exploring a partnership to build workforce housing at the site. However, he noted the financial challenges associated with those projects due to a low return on investment.

A sold-out crowd of regional political, business and civic leaders filled a ballroom at the Vinoy Resort & Golf Club.

Professional Baseball

Gregory asked why a proposed deal with the Tampa Bay Rays/Hines development team is better than other stadium projects that failed to meet expectations. Welch said most professional baseball teams do not contribute over half the cost.

The Rays will spend at least $700 million on the $1.3 billion project. Pinellas officials have pledged $312.5 million, and Welch said St. Petersburg’s $287.5 million commitment would not come at taxpayers’ expense.

While Tampa attempted to woo the Rays, Castor offered her support. “As Mayor Welch said, it’s not just a stadium; it’s an entire community,” said Castor of the $6.5 billion Historic Gas Plant redevelopment project.

“I think as long as everyone works together towards that common goal, it will be incredibly successful,” she added. “Not just for Pinellas County and St. Pete, but for the entire Tampa Bay region.”

Aungst provided an update on a much-discussed expansion of the Philadelphia Phillies’ spring training and minor league complex in Clearwater. Despite cost estimates topping $500 million, he said the tourism tax dollars could contribute to both baseball projects.

In addition, Aungst said the Phillies’ new owners have paused an initial $350 million redevelopment plan. He hopes to receive a $60 million expansion proposal “sooner than later” and said the team could complete the larger project in phases over three to eight years.


The mayors also took questions from Suncoast Tiger Bay Club members.

Divisiveness and maintaining identity

Gregory asked the mayors to opine on mitigating divisiveness during an election year. “Folks don’t really care if you’re red or blue,” Welch said. “They care that you have services they need when they need it.”

Welch stressed the importance of gathering public feedback before addressing various issues. He also said that “everything we do should impact the community.”

Castor noted that the region is more welcoming than many parts of Florida. However, she said local leaders must actively work to maintain that identity amid an influx of new residents.

Welch said municipal and county officials typically put people over politics. He asked attendees if they had ever heard of a local government shutdown. “It doesn’t happen,” Welch added.

A Tiger Bay member asked the panel how they overcome state preemptions that impede housing, inclusivity and other local initiatives. Welch said equity is good for business and a key component of the Gas Plant’s redevelopment.

“What we have done is use all of our local authority to exhibit what we are about in St. Pete,” Welch said. “Our motto is ‘We are St. Pete.’ That means everybody in St. Pete, and we live that.

“We’ve always got to speak truth to power – and we’ll continue to do so.”

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  1. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    January 7, 2024at9:25 pm

    The truth is that you’re selling-out to Stuart Sternberg consequences be damned.

  2. Avatar

    Ron O

    January 7, 2024at7:26 am

    Let’s try to do away with cliches like ““We’ve always got to speak truth to power – and we’ll continue to do so.” Keep in mind that everybody seems to want to speak their truth at the top of their lungs, and that the first step to true communication is listening, not speaking.

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