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More Mayor: Welch talks airport, Rays at private event

Mark Parker

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Mayor Ken Welch (third from right) with Florida Economic Club of Tampa Bay committee members at its Community Leader Social. Photo by Mark Parker.

The Florida Economic Club of Tampa Bay’s Community Leader Social provided Mayor Ken Welch the chance to discuss pressing issues in St. Petersburg.

The club’s community leader socials are a regional affair as they alternate monthly locations between Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties. During Wednesday night’s event, held at Sea Salt St. Pete, Welch offered his latest thoughts on Albert Whitted Airport, Tropicana Field redevelopment – including the city’s stadium funding advantage over Tampa – and the need to maintain affordable and workforce housing.

The airport

The future of downtown St. Petersburg’s Albert Whitted Airport has been the recent topic of much discussion in the city. In August, an evaluation committee voted to cancel Welch’s request for qualifications (RFQ) from consultants to evaluate uses at the 100-acre waterfront site due to a lack of responses and undefined scope. On Sept. 1, city leaders discussed rejecting federal money for projects and self-funding to avoid a further commitment to maintaining the airport – an idea rejected by several officials.

“I think the rest of the community should weigh in on what’s the best use for that property,” said Welch. “I could see an expansion of our waterfront park system on one part of it. I can see USF expansion on the other end. We’ve got the (Maritime and Defense Technology) hub that could expand.”

Albert Whitted Airport. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

He added that society adopting electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) could also reduce the airport’s footprint.

Regarding equity and access, Welch noted his daughter was a newborn when former Mayor Rick Baker broached the idea of new applications for the Albert Whitted site in 2003. She is now 20, and he relayed that she has never set foot in the airport – which offers no commercial services.

He called the ratio of people in St. Petersburg that benefit from the airport unacceptable. While he realizes it may not be a popular choice with many residents and city leaders, Welch wants to continue exploring other uses with the community’s input.

Tropicana Field Redevelopment

As a child of the former Gas Plant District, he reasserted the need to remember promises made by the city when it razed the neighborhood to make way for a baseball stadium and new development. He cited the results of a structural racism and disparity study, a changing marketplace and a lack of communication with the Tampa Bay Rays as reasons he restarted the request for proposals (RFP) process for the 86-acre Tropicana Field site.

“I think there’s a way we move forward where everyone wins,” said Welch. “Where all businesses – minority businesses, small businesses – have a part in what will be more than a decade of redevelopment.”

St. Petersburg, noted Welch, was the last city to build one of the old “big box” stadiums. He called the timing “horrible,” but said the expansive site is the right place for a smaller, more modern venue that connects with downtown.

Welch said the team’s leadership has expressed where they would like a stadium on the 86 acres – but it is not the current location.

He explained the county contributed $100 million from its bed tax to help build Tropicana Field, and he will ask for a percentage of that funding to construct a new stadium “at the proper time.”

“Which is another reason I’m confident,” said Welch. “Hillsborough doesn’t have the bed tax we have. They don’t have the beaches we have.”

Infrastructure

While many of the problems existed before he became mayor, explained Welch, St. Petersburg has a stormwater issue.

“No politician wants to go to a ribbon-cutting for a sewer,” he said. “Across this country, we ignored our infrastructure, and now we’re paying for it as extreme weather happens.”

St. Petersburg, said Welch, has a $3 billion water plan to fix pipes and treatment plants. He said water bills would continue increasing to pay for necessary improvements. The city is also reallocating $9 million in annual Penny for Pinellas funding that would otherwise go to parks, libraries and community centers.

Welch said he is working with the federal government to acquire additional funding to alleviate the need to use county tax dollars – a previous focus of former Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens.

Housing

Welch began his presentation by telling area business leaders how as a student at Florida A&M University, he wondered if young people would want to return to St. Petersburg. After experiencing exponential growth and revitalization, he now wonders if they could afford to return to the city.

The mayor said he enjoy driving into downtown from the interstate and seeing several construction cranes but noted those were primarily for market rate or luxury developments. While he called people moving into the city with disposable incomes a “great thing,” he said the city must maintain affordable and workforce housing or risk losing its authenticity and identity.

Welch relayed how the city recently won two awards for its efforts at the recent Florida Housing Coalition Conference, one of which was for becoming the first municipality to utilize a house bill that allows the transformation of industrial-zoned properties into affordable housing.

He said the Fairfield Avenue Apartments, formerly home to Tibbets Lumber, will provide units for those making as little as $12.50 an hour.

“The median income here is about $50,000,” said Welch. “So, about half of the people make less than that. Where are the places for those folks to live? If we don’t focus on that, we will become a different community.”

 

 

 

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    James thompson

    September 8, 2022at7:21 pm

    The mayor has not accepted that he is the mayor for everyone, not just for those he deems lack equity. The scheme he is floating for Albert Whitted airport appears very similar to one proposed in 2003. That ultimately led to a referendum which resulted in an overwhelming vote of support for the near 100 year airport. I don’t believe that support has eroded. Now he wants taxpayer money to replace grants already available so that he could avoid extending an existing 20 year restriction by one year. Nothing I can support

  2. Avatar

    Karen Kirkpatrick

    September 8, 2022at10:12 pm

    I agree completely. I was part of the 2003 campaign to keep airport. We are now organizing once again. Thus far, I am disappointed and alarmed at what I am observing from the new mayor. I did vote for him but I am quickly seeing my vote my come to haunt me. I hope not. BTW, if the mayor’s daughter chooses not to visit the airport, that is her problem. It is open to all.

  3. Avatar

    Donna Kostreva

    September 8, 2022at10:43 pm

    Supporting local businesses is important. I am surprised that the mayor has not frequented the Hanger restaurant right at AW! Take your daughter for lunch, Sir. Watch the planes take off.

    It is tiresome to hear of another land grab attempt on the jewel of our City, Albert Whitted. I cannot support any official who blatantly disregards the will of the people, or is shortsighted in the community value afforded everyone by maintaining the airport.

  4. Avatar

    George H Harasz

    September 9, 2022at5:49 am

    I would love to see that airport become a water front park!

  5. Avatar

    Kenny Packs

    September 9, 2022at8:07 am

    There are already plenty of waterfront parks. Have you not been down there George???

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