A heated debate between the St. Petersburg City Council and Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration involving the Tropicana Field redevelopment process could be a preview of what’s ahead in the effort to revamp a major part of the city.
City Council members on Thursday pushed back against an administration plan to hire an outside consultant to review the redevelopment proposals. After about an hour of discussion, Kriseman withdrew the plan for an outside consultant and said city staff would review the redevelopment proposals on their own.
“The mayor strongly believes such [outside] expertise would be in the best interest of the community, especially as it relates to equity, but given council’s unwillingness to move forward with that item, we were fine with yielding and continuing to move this process forward,” Ben Kirby, communications director, told the St. Pete Catalyst.
Hiring an outside consultant for projects often is fairly routine, but the stakes are especially high for the Tropicana Field redevelopment, which has been described as “generational opportunity” for economic development.
The 86-acre site once was home to a thriving Black neighborhood whose residents lost businesses and homes when the site was cleared to build a baseball stadium. City officials last year said they would be very intentional about ensuring the wellbeing of the Black community is incorporated into the new development plans.
The city received eight proposals from potential master developers by its Jan. 15 deadline, said Alan DeLisle, development director. Those proposals have not yet been publicly released, but DeLisle said they would be released soon, after city staff look them over first to make sure they meet requirements and for any confidentiality issues.
DeLisle asked the City Council to approve HR&A Advisors Inc., a New York-based real estate and economic development consulting firm, as the outside consultant, or “owner’s representative,” working with city staff to evaluate the proposals the city receives from master developers, assess the economic and fiscal impacts of short-listed proposals, and help negotiate a term sheet. HR&A Advisors was picked from among seven potential outside consultants. DeLisle said the firm stood out because it has a large diverse team that has addressed social equity issues in prior projects.
“We’ve got a review committee internally that is about 20 staff people, from all different departments, all different walks of life, all different perspectives. We have asked that review committee to review the proposals and do a strengths and weaknesses document. It will be very thoroughly done. It will be very professionally done,” DeLisle said. “But what we can’t do internally is a really good economic impact analysis or fiscal impact analysis or social equity analysis. HR&A were going to do those three functions.”
The administration withdrew the plan to hire HR&A after Council Chairman Ed Montanari said he was not ready to move forward with choosing an outside consultant and other Council members agreed.
“I don’t need outside expertise,” said Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders. “I need the city of St. Petersburg, the Black folks that were dislocated, expertise.”
Council member Brandi Gabbard said she could not vote on any matter regarding the Trop site until she sees a community benefits agreement for the project, while Council member Darden Rice asked for more details on how HR&A has dealt with social equity.
Montanari said he wanted to first get input from the Tampa Bay Rays, whose lease at Tropicana Field expires at the end of the 2027 season. The Rays have not yet said where they will play after that, and master developers were asked to submit plans both with and without a baseball stadium.
Montanari also wants updates on Interstate 175, which currently separates the Trop site from parts of south St. Petersburg, as well as ongoing litigation involving railroad tracks that run through the Trop property.
Council member Robert Blackmon said it was difficult to choose a firm to rank the redevelopment proposals, when Council members themselves have yet to see those proposals. He also said the process felt rushed.
“Look at the scope of services duration. It’s over 12 months and that puts us into the next mayoral administration. I just feel like we’re rushing things here. It’s going to be someone else’s car to drive, so to speak, in the very near future,” Blackmon said.
Kriseman, whose term expires in early 2022, said the process has not been rushed. It has been going on for five years and has involved multiple community meetings, he said. Community input was mandated in the request for proposals that went to potential master developers.
“The desires of City Council, the desires of the administration, the desires of the community, in particular the community that was displaced, and the history of that site and the importance of that site, and the promises that were not kept on that site, are evident throughout the entire document that went out that we call the RFP,” Kriseman said. “That doesn’t stop throughout this process. Even once a developer gets selected, our expectation is these conversations will continue through the entire process.”
City Council members proposed postponing a vote on hiring an outside consultant until February, but by then, the city expects to already have a short list of master developers, DeLisle said.
Still, Council members voted seven-to-zero, with Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman absent, to get a Trop update at a future committee meeting. The date for that meeting was not scheduled.