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Mayors Castor, Welch disseminate local issues at State of the Bay

Mark Parker

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Tampa Mayor Jane Castor (left), and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch share the stage at the James Museum for the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club's 2022 State of the Bay event. Photo by Mark Parker.

The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club kicked off its 2022 season in grand fashion Friday, bringing Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch together to discuss topics dominating discourse in Tampa Bay.

Held in a sold-out ballroom at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in downtown St. Pete, the event also formally introduced Suncoast Tiger Bay’s first Black president, Rev. J.C. Pritchett II. St. Pete Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton and Tampa Bay Times correspondent William March posed questions to the leaders of Florida’s third and fifth most populated cities.

Following last week’s announcement that Major League Baseball rejected the Tampa Bay Rays’ split season plan with Montreal – and with the two mayors now vying for a new permanent home for the team sharing a stage – the first four questions were devoted to that topic. Castor began by stating she never envisioned a bidding war.

“I think we’re on the same page that we all feel that we’re too big of a region to lose a major league sporting franchise,” said Castor. “We are looking at a location in Tampa to house the Rays on a full-time basis, and I’m sure that’s the same thing you’ll hear from Mayor Welch.”

Castor said there is a bottom line to public funding, and the city will offer a proposal in the best interest of its residents. Welch said he discussed the topic over his two-year mayoral campaign and his approach remains the same. He said the redevelopment of the former Gas Plant neighborhood and current home to Tropicana Field is a priority before reiterating that the first focus is ensuring 35 years of promises for equitable development and jobs at the location come to fruition.

Welch believes there is a place for the Rays in that equitable development and noted the sacrifices made to bring the team to St. Pete, but fulfilling those empty promises takes precedence for the new mayor.

“On our side of the bay, I believe we have one last at-bat, so to speak,” said Welch. “I want to put our best effort forward.”

Welch, a former county commissioner, noted that one penny of the county Bed Tax was the primary source of funding for Tropicana Field. Welch said the Bed Tax – paid for by tourists – has provided well over $100 million and could be a substantial funding source for a new stadium.

“Whether it is at Tropicana Field or a waterfront ballpark – which I think would be iconic and unmatched – I think we need to take a shot at it,” Welch added.

Castor described the impact of professional sports on a region, from showcasing a city on a national and world stages to uniting community members from various backgrounds. Welch agreed and said the team would need to split the cost of a new stadium, at the least, which he said could be $800 million. He added the days of taxpayers shouldering the burden of a new sports facility is over.

When asked if Tampa and St. Pete would share funding for a new stadium, the two mayors succinctly and emphatically said no.

In non-Rays-related news, Castor said ensuring Tampa residents have access to reliable mass transit is a top priority for Tampa in the coming year.

“I often say mass transit in the south is more than two people in an SUV,” said Castor, eliciting laughter from the sold-out crowd. “But we have to change that mindset as well, by providing transportation solutions.”

Castor named affordable housing – and allowing a diverse group of people to live in the area of their choosing – as another critical issue Tampa hopes to address. Workforce development is also an area of focus, as having the skills and training necessary to land high-paying jobs also allows more people to afford rising rents and mortgages.

Welch began his list of priorities with affordable housing and described a small business enterprise program through the county that dwindled to $70,000 in annual recurring funding for area small businesses. After organizational restructuring and a focus on intentional equity, Welch said Dr. Cynthia Johnson took the program from $70,000 to $2 million in funding in just two years. Welch said he plans to replicate that approach with affordable housing.

“I don’t want to see proposals come to us with 5% or 10% workforce housing and call that a win,” said Welch. “Because the folks who live in this community where the median income is $49,000, which is about $23 an hour … they can’t afford that.”

Welch said all the new housing construction in the city is “great” – and his intention is not to demonize developers – but people need to realize that those who work in industries like hospitality, education and healthcare are getting left behind.

Welch recently promoted Rob Gerdes to assist the city administrator with special initiatives, and his first initiative is affordable housing. Welch relayed an example of the new focus that occurred earlier Friday morning when a developer proposed constructing townhomes on 16th Street South at 120% of the Area Median Income (AMI), or about $60,000 annually.

“Well, I grew up there, and I know folks there aren’t making that,” said Welch. “So why don’t we make it 80% AMI, and if it needs a subsidy – which is another piece of it – then we can talk about a subsidy, thanks to the county.”

On Thursday, the State Senate passed a bill to make it easier for businesses to sue municipalities that enact regulations that cut into a company’s profits by 15% or more. The mayors were unanimous in their disdain for the legislation, which still needs House approval and the governor’s signature.

Welch noted the fertilizer ordinance the City of St. Pete passed to stem the causes of red tide, and how the bill could prevent similar measures. The legislation could also affect rent control and affordable housing measures.

“It makes no sense to me at all,” said Welch.

Castor agreed with her counterpart from across the bay and said in the three years she has held office, the attack on “home rule” becomes more egregious with every state legislative session.

“Every city is unique,” added Castor. “And who has the ability to see that, who has the ability to address those issues?

“It’s the mayors of those cities.”

 

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