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Welch: Rays’ stadium plans are not driving study on airport property

Veronica Brezina

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Downtown St. Petersburg and the airport. File photo.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch wants to reevaluate uses for the city’s prime 119-acre waterfront property where Albert Whitted Airport currently operates. 

“This has been a whispered conversation [about the potential redevelopment of the site] in this community for a long time … frankly, folks have been afraid to bring it forward because there’s been a lot of pushback [from the airport supporters]. I’m just saying we need to have this conversation,” Welch said to media members Friday, from the steps of City Hall.

The media event followed Welch announcing he had instructed city staff to further study economic and community impacts at Albert Whitted Airport. He stated his goal is to identify the best uses for the city-owned site through the lens of equity, business and the needs of the community.

“At this stage, we are seeking data and information … calling for this study does not mean we have a specific plan for the site,” Welch said. 

When the news first surfaced, many speculated it may be due to elevating sites for a new potential Tampa Bay Rays stadium, as the team’s lease is ending at Tropicana Field in 2027 and the Major League Baseball Executive Council has rejected the organization’s sister-city plan, wherein the team would split its games between St. Petersburg and Montreal. 

However, Welch said that is not what’s fueling the discussion, and that the talks of the Rays building a waterfront stadium have been discussed for years. 

“It was on a list of sites that were looked at [for a Rays stadium]- Gandy, Toy Town,” Welch said, providing examples. “It’s not a new discussion.”

“This has a lot of parallels for me personally between Tropicana Field and the Gas Plant. My focus on the Gas Plant is not the Rays as a priority. It’s that equity development that’s been promised for 35 years. The Rays are important, but they are secondary to that,” Welch said.

“The same issue here is not ‘does a Rays ballpark go there,’ it’s what we do with that 119 acres, and the Rays could certainly be an alternative in that. It’s certainly not driving the conversation.” 

He explained how the request for the study emerged as the city was going to conduct another master plan study. The airport property was last studied in 2018, solely on economic impact and heavily focused on the extension of the airport’s runway – but nothing further. 

“It could be everything from the extension of our waterpark system south to the expansion of the USF [University of South Florida] Marine Sciences Center [or] the Maritime Defense and Technology Hub – there could be a lot of possibilities,” Welch said on the untapped potential. 

Welch added he has started communicating with organizers of the Firestone Grand Prix to collect their input, and stressed this study is truly about looking at the site as “a clean slate” and he does not foresee hi-rise condos and similar development taking shape there. 

There isn’t a timeline associated with the study as of yet, or as Welch stated, there’s “no rush” on the study. 

Today, the airport is used for private aviation services but doesn’t house any commercial airlines. 

The airport recently wrapped up its $4.5 million southwest hangar project, and is planning a $3.7 million project to rehab another runway, construct new taxiways, and update the lighting to LED. The project is being funded through the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration.

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Sara Wallace

    February 18, 2022at4:32 pm

    Pls Mayor don’t use our precious waterfront
    for the stadium! We have fought to keep
    that open space for years since your father
    & I were in the City Council.
    The area is already crowded & I can’t imagine
    the traffic that would increase.
    Sally Wallace

  2. Avatar

    Mike Connelly

    February 18, 2022at5:00 pm

    All day and night low flying noise and air pollution … to teach flying lessons?

    And now millions more being sucked out of taxpayers pockets for more of the same?

    Do we wait for the catastrophic event in The Old NE and or USFSP to eventually happen & in the meantime suffer through the relentless noise and waste of money.

    Of course …. “fly me to the 🌕”

  3. Avatar

    Andrew Wilson

    February 18, 2022at5:13 pm

    The airport is required to be used as an airport per the city charter. It would take a citizen referendum to make it anything else. The last time this came up, the effort to close the airport was thumped with 75%+ of the city choosing to keep it.

    One of the surest ways to lose support in this town is to try to close our airport. The city should make better use of the airport, engage with USF St Pete to create a competing school to Embry-Riddle and make aviation more accessible to children throughout the city – particularly those who may never get a chance to fly.

  4. Avatar

    V Cai

    February 18, 2022at7:57 pm

    While I can understand trying to take the airport if all of St. Pete were already developed, why doesn’t the major focus on developing South St. Pete? There’s so much “prime property” there if it were only developed; instead there’s not even a grocery store. And, DTSP and The Pier are so crowded as it is, I’d hate to add even more congestion to the mix. Spread those development dollars and bring up the rest of St. Pete!

  5. Avatar

    Frank Thompson

    February 19, 2022at10:04 am

    That this study is even being discussed. Even Contemplated, Mr Welch has lost my vote. Yes, people will be passionate. Frank

  6. Avatar

    Jerry Nelon

    February 20, 2022at11:41 am

    Mr Welch is on dangerous ground here, and I don’t mean the actual airport. If this City aims for prominence then it will not achieve it by a combination of airport redevelopment (read closure), the demolition of I175 and I375 and the headlong drive to equity. I have every desire to see the City bring reality to those of all levels, the help the disadvantaged, but at at the cost of all others. St Pete, you kinda knew this is what you would get when this man was elected

  7. Avatar

    Scooter McFarcical

    February 23, 2022at2:43 pm

    A decade ago, when the City of Chicago took action to deactivate the downtown Chicago lakefront airport, Meigs Field, all kinds of hand-wringing was going on about business impact and other terrible things that would happen. This evaluation parallels that circumstance. Ultimately, Meigs was decommissioned and turned into a city park and waterfront. I think we also look at the spectacular success that San Francisco achieved by building the new ballpark in which the SF Giants play. It has been a resounding success for a stadium that showcases the city, the water, and downtown St. Petersburg life. Mayor Welch may be onto something. If St. Petersburg wants to keep the Rays on this side of the bay, this is a real conversation that needs to take place and I applaud his approach to the evaluation of the “highest and best use” of the space. PIE (St. Pete Clearwater Airport) is 15-20 minutes away from downtown. TPA is 25-30. Seems this is a good time to evaluate options and Whitted is no longer a third rail topic.

  8. Avatar

    Hugh J. Hazeltine

    February 25, 2022at12:11 pm

    The picture here was taken from Mayor’s twitter post. It shows prominently Runway 36. That runway is currently undergoing rehabilitation and moving it slightly east. The city accepted Federal dollars to help pay for this improvement and with the grant of that money comes one condition, it must remain an airport for the next 20 years. Albert Whitted is part of the National airspace plan and serves as a reliever for Tampa International. Tasking city staff to study the idea of alternatives may not be the best use of their time since the FAA has ruled on the matter and said they will press their grant assurances requirement in court if necessary.

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