St. Petersburg made history Thursday as Ken Welch officially became the first African American to lead the city in the 130 years since it elected its first mayor.
Welch took his oath to serve as the city’s 54th mayor virtually, as he is home isolating due to a mild case of Covid. The ceremonial events surrounding his inauguration were pre-recorded but embodied his inclusive mantra – “we are St. Pete.” Local schoolchildren recited the Pledge of Allegiance from the steps of City Hall, followed by local saxophonist Jordan Bold’s stirring rendition of the National Anthem.
Poet Giovanni Cerro gave a reading of his “Ode to St. Pete,” and the mayor’s sister, Katrina Welch, performed the song “Order My Steps.” Local writer and director Erica Sutherlin read Terri Lipsey Scott’s poem “We Are St. Petersburg,” and Pastor Clarence Williams of Mt. Zion African Methodist Church delivered the invocation before Welch addressed the city for the first time as mayor.
“This is a significant moment for many reasons,” said Welch. “It represents the breaking of another barrier.”
Welch noted he was a child of the civil rights era and attended the last segregated class at Melrose Elementary School. Last November, he returned to speak at Melrose Elementary as the city’s mayor-elect.
“So yes, this election is historic,” said Welch. “But our goal is to not simply make history – we must work together to make a difference. To make an impact for this generation and generations to come.”
Welch said he would announce further administrative appointments and organizational changes to address the continuity of operations and emerging issues and maximize the city’s effectiveness, efficiency and customer focus in the coming days.
Welch explained the affordable housing crisis deserves a higher level of focus. He said St. Petersburg and the greater Tampa Bay area experienced a 24% increase in apartment rental costs last year – the highest increase in the nation. Welch said the ratio of corporate purchases of the city’s housing stock is also among the highest in the country.
“Based on the importance of this issue and the rapidly emerging challenge of housing affordability, I am creating a high-level position,” announced Welch. “The assistant administrator for strategic initiatives, whose first area of focus will be the preservation and development of affordable and workforce housing.”
Welch said former Neighborhood Affairs Administrator Rob Gerdes would serve in the new role. Welch said Gerdes’ record of collaboration, cross-functional project management, policy development and community engagement make him uniquely suited for the position.
Welch also announced he is implementing an effective diversity, equity and inclusion program. Welch said his administration would move intentionally on minority contract and supplier diversity in response to the results of the racial disparity and structural racism studies recently heard by the city council.
Welch credited the “visionary work” of his friend and former mayor Rick Kriseman for leaving the city well-positioned. Welch also thanked Kriseman for his leadership through unprecedented challenges such as the pandemic.
“Our city has become an incubator for new business, technology startups, a pioneer in innovative problem-solving, a leader in creativity and cultural growth, a hub for medical and marine science research and discovery, and a thriving example of the live, work, play and retire lifestyle,” said Welch.
As St. Petersburg moves forward, he said, it is vital not to look at the city’s diversity as something that divides but to let it become the city’s greatest strength. He said that the power of partnership lies in the collective capacity for progress, and working together will ensure the city’s continued success for the next four years.
“We are St. Pete,” stated Welch in closing. “And as my father would say, it’s time to get to work.”