St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch envisions new community centers, tech hubs and homeownership opportunities for residents, and he has a road map on how the city can reach these goals.
“The whole purpose and centerpiece of my campaign was inclusive progress, how we move forward as a city. In my view, equity is fundamental to that. We cannot be the best city if equity is not fundamental to that,” Welch said during the January 2022 Economic Equity Policy Dialogue virtual event.
The Equity Institute of St Petersburg, the St. Pete NAACP, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and the University of South Florida hosted the event.
The panelists who sparked the conversation on multiple hot topics included St. Petersburg College Provost of the Downtown and Midtown Centers Tashika Griffith; Cynthia Johnson, Economic Development Director of Pinellas County; Jason Mathis, CEO of The Downtown Partnership, and others.
Welch provided a game plan for how the city can truly achieve equitable economic development.
“The folks we are appointing all have that equity lens and understand that is a priority. When you have that foundation from the start, it helps you move in the right direction,” he said, listing off new hires such as Tom Greene, who is the interim city administrator, and Rob Gerdes, former neighborhood affairs administrator, who now serves as the assistant city administrator.
“Part of leadership is understanding you are not the smartest person in the room, nor do you have to be … You have to get the ideas from folks who are the subject matter experts then bring it together in a way that brings the impact that you want,” Welch said. “We are agnostic about where the best ideas come from. It doesn’t matter if we had a beef in the past or are different parties, whatever, if it’s an idea that moves us past an issue, we are going to put that on the table and talk about it.”
Welch stressed how the departments ranging from administration to legislative need to work outside of their silos to collaboratively help the city address growing equity issues.
Welch has firsthand knowledge of the ongoing challenges, as he led the effort to create the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) to provide over $100 million over 30 years to reduce generational poverty through education, job training and affordable housing.
Welch also worked on the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), which under certain criteria requires developers to hold community meetings in the neighborhood impacted by their project to get residents’ input and may directly invest in projects such as affordable housing.
“I’m already hearing some folks push back on that [the CBA] and see if we can water that down. That’s not going to happen. The way we move forward is making sure we are intentional about equity,” Welch said.
He said he asked city staff for data on the current housing inventory and the trends over the last few years.
“The urgency here is the land is being bought up so I want to be aggressive and innovative. Why can’t we purchase land and hold it and find partners to put apartments or [build units for] homeownership?” Welch said.
One large catalytic project that could create the potential for more equitable development is the redevelopment of the 86-acre Tropicana Field site.
Welch said the site is a “blank slate,” and when considering the Trop’s role in the displacement of the Gas Plant neighborhood years ago, it paints a bigger perspective on how to develop the site with equity in mind.
Welch said he will go back and review the Trop proposals for the site to decide how to move forward.
“I want to push harder on the master developer that I select to make sure they make a significant investment in the community,” Welch said. “You’re talking about billions of dollars over the decades that will come through there. I’m not looking for a symbolic notion toward checking a box for equity. I want something to be built in, substantial and generational as well.”
“We have a city that can literally become unaffordable … We’ve got an issue where we lead the nation in bad statistics like our rents, violence … We’ve got to reach out to those who think putting their hands on a gun is the answer – that’s what I’m excited about doing and collaboration has to be a part of that,” Welch said.
Digital inclusion is a major part of educational and economic infrastructure. The large gap in digital accessibility has become evident over the past several years, and was exacerbated by the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, we shut the schools down and half the students didn’t have access to the internet and much less, have a home. The digital inclusion piece is big. What I want to do is upgrade or replace our community centers so they are modernized and are true hubs and innovation centers,” Welch said.
He provided the example of the Lealman Exchange as a model to consider.
“You can’t have an old building that’s brick and mortar that the community doesn’t want to go to. We need to upgrade those, we have funding sources to do that,” Welch said.
Welch added that he took a trip to the White House to discuss the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was created to ensure that every American has access to reliable high-speed internet, and the Build Back Better Plan, which includes funding for Covid-19 relief, welfare and infrastructure.
“I want to put us in a position to draw those so that we can make sure digital access is really a utility,” Welch said.
As Welch pushes his ideas and recommendations forward, he said he would like the community to continue to share their suggestions and insight with the city.
The January 2022 Economic Equity Policy Dialogue event was created by The Equity Institute of St. Petersburg (by The 2020 Plan Inc.), St. Petersburg Branch NAACP, Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.