For Gwendolyn Reese, the news that St. Petersburg city officials and the Tampa Bay Rays reached an agreement to redevelop the area around Tropicana Field represented a new beginning.
Reese noted that redeveloping what was once the predominantly Black and thriving Gas Plant District “can’t solve all the problems.” However, she told the Catalyst it was a first step to righting past wrongs.
“I feel like it’s the first real step that’s ever been taken,” Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association, added. “It’s gone farther than anything else that has ever been done in the city.”
Before the team’s leadership submitted a proposal to reimagine 86 acres of prime downtown real estate – anchored by a long sought-after new ballpark – they invited several Gas Plant descendants to dinner. Reese, a local historian who spent much of her early years in the area, joined about 15 people with direct ties to the hundreds of families displaced in the city’s pursuit of Major League Baseball.
In the 1980s, city officials began razing homes, businesses and churches in the name of urban renewal. They promised residents revitalization and jobs; they received Tropicana Field and its sprawling parking lots.
While Stuart Sternberg didn’t purchase the Rays until 2008, Reese said he and the team “genuinely” wanted to know what happened to Gas Plant residents and include their thoughts for the future in the proposal. She later became an advisor.
Mayor Ken Welch selected the team’s proposal from four submissions in January. After eight months of tight-lipped negotiations, Sternberg and Welch announced Sept. 19 that they had reached an agreement.
“For me and some of the other residents I’ve spoken to, that was one of the most emotionally exciting moments,” Reese said. “I think we are the ones who had most of the emotion involved because we could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We could finally have hope.”
Reese noted that the project would finally create once-promised housing in the area. The development will feature 4,800 market rate and 600 affordable and workforce units.
At least 100 of those will provide independent senior living opportunities. Real estate investment firm Hines, the Rays’ development partner, will also build another 600 offsite affordable and workforce units.
The development team also committed $50 million to intentional equity initiatives. That includes $17.5 million for South St. Pete educational programming, with $10 million dedicated to a new Woodson African American Museum of Florida.
Minority, small and women-owned business initiatives will receive $13 million. The development team has also allocated $3.75 million to supplier diversity and job training programs.
Based on a 20% participation target threshold, the development team plans to spend over $500 million on minority and women-owned business contracts. The Rays put together a community outreach team before submitting their proposal, and Michael Harrison, senior managing director of Hines, said that focus has increased.
He said the project would create 30,000 construction jobs and over 4,500 permanent positions, “and we need to train people so that they can be a part of that process. We’re not going to wait for the city to ratify our development agreement,” Harrison added.
Rays President Brian Auld stressed the importance of two partners throughout the process: Welch, a self-proclaimed “child of the Gas Plant,” and Reese.
“Neither one of us wants to let them down at any point,” Auld said. “We’re getting that feedback and making sure we’re responsive to it.”
Auld said Reese would lead the process to properly honor the site’s legacy and St. Petersburg’s African-American history. “We’re eager to do that,” he stressed. “We know that it’s important.”
As Auld noted and Reese later confirmed, most Gas Plant descendants – above anything else – appreciate that awareness and acknowledgment. She said former city officials broke their promises nearly 40 years ago, not the Tampa Bay Rays or Hines.
Reese said she, atypically, struggled to find the right words while discussing such an emotional topic. She explained that the recognition of past wrongs and an attempt to make things right provides a “sense of being.”
“When someone ignores your past and ignores all the things that happened and doesn’t make any effort towards redress, it’s almost as though you aren’t important,” Reese elaborated. “You aren’t significant; you aren’t valued.”
A key aspect of restoring that legacy is honoring those buried at the former Oaklawn Cemetery, now a parking lot. Reese said an artist suggested a mural on a nearby overpass, and the development team plans to create a memorial garden.
She said they are not limited to those ideas; the community will help inform those decisions. Reese said she would like to see a welcome center highlight the Gas Plant through pictures and memorabilia.
Reese envisions people walking through the site’s history as they enter one side of the redevelopment, separate from the museum. There are also plans to name streets and buildings after prominent Gas Plant residents, with corresponding informational plaques to inform visitors.
“It’s a very strong beginning,” Reese said. “This can be a model for what future development – any future development – needs to look like.
“What we are proposing may not satisfy everyone, and it will definitely not solve every social situation we are confronting in this city, but it is the best damn start I have ever seen.”