Dozens of residents poured into the Willis S. Johns Recreation Center Wednesday evening to ask the city’s department leaders about stormwater issues, neighborhood safety concerns and housing programs during the second City Hall on Tour event.
The open-house-style series connects citizens with St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch and department heads to have candid conversations about the latest projects and initiatives from the city.
Welch told media members former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster initiated a similar program during his time in office.
The next City Hall on Tour stop is scheduled for Sept. 19 from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Lake Vista Recreation Center.
In a one-on-one interview with the St. Pete Catalyst, Welch shared his perspective on projects in the city and the goals of his administration:
Can you clarify what you were referring to when you previously said the city administration will “not fall into cultural wars“?
“You’ll see the folks here tonight are not going to be talking about those issues that divide us [controversial legislation in the state and federal levels]. They are going to talk about a pothole or Airbnb issues, but it’s not going to be about putting folks in a category, saying they are the enemy, they are the problem.”
Welch explained he was referring to the anti-woke movement and legislation impacting the LGBTQ+ community when mentioning “cultural wars” at an event held earlier this week.
“That’s not what we need to focus on at the local level – it’s sea level rise, storm prep, what we do with our infrastructure and sewer systems that we need to focus on.”
What is the current status of the Tangerine Plaza and the Manhattan Casino?
Tangerine Plaza redevelopment: Tangerine Plaza, located in South St. Pete, formerly housed a Sweetbay supermarket and Walmart Neighborhood Market. “I have a spreadsheet of developments going on. At a high level, we are working with the Sugar Hill group with Louis Murphy, Roy Binger and the Urban League of Greater Miami [through its affiliated New Urban Group]. There is a small grocery element, but the focus is on the affordable housing piece of it.”
Manhattan Casino redevelopment: The historic Manhattan Casino, a culturally significant facility in The Deuces converted into a food hall, fell into a state of disrepair and the venture ultimately failed. “We are working on the repairs. I’ve had good conversations with [City Development Administrator] James Corbett and [City Administrator] Rob Gerdes to bring something to the council shortly.”
How do you balance meeting the need for revitalization and helping communities rise while also not jeopardizing the culture and history of the neighborhoods?
“Part of it [the solution] is talking with the community. We had a community conversations event about the Manhattan Casino and folks are concerned about having a space open to the community that’s not true to the history of The Deuces. All those things are factored in. I’m really confident and optimistic about the path we are laying out for it. It will be both of those things. It needs to be done right. We’ve tried the restaurant [strategy] and has not worked. We are willing to be innovative as long as it stays true to the history and is sustainable.”
The term sheet between the city and the Tampa Bay Rays for the new stadium agreement is being drafted. What are you seeking in the term sheet that would benefit the city?
“I want the Rays to remain in St. Pete. So much has been sacrificed to bring baseball into our community. I do think, again, it’s the right place for the Rays. Our downtown is growing exponentially, and it is moving fast. I think when this conversation started 10 years ago, it was different. I want to see something affordable to the citizens and fits in with St. Pete’s culture and vibe through a solid partnership. The conversation with the Rays has been very productive. We reached out to them, the county and the city council to build that partnership. I was confident from Day One to partner with the county and that with our strong bed tax, we could afford our piece of it. Before now, there were limits to what we could do. Also, there’s a 2027 end date [when the team’s lease expires]. As I’ve said before, this is our last best turn at bat.”
The city receives numerous proposals, including unsolicited bids, for developable sites near the Gas Plant District. How do you manage and work with those developers to ensure those proposals align with the city’s goals?
“We get unsolicited proposals that are adjacent to it. We are trying to complement [those projects] to what we are trying to do at the Gas Plant – we look at things from that perspective. If it’s an office space proposal, how does that interfere with the office space at the Gas Plant? Or a hotel proposal, how does it affect it? The Historic Gas Plant is the largest and most impactful development, so we have to look at that and do it right. The other projects around the site have to be compatible. We have been waiting for the Gas Plant [transformation] for so long and we are so close now.”
How are you ensuring affordable housing is meeting the demand in St. Pete as some developers have altered plans on unit counts?
“That’s not the idea of building for affordable housing in the long-term. If we build affordable housing that’s tied to our land, it should not be changing. We just broke ground with Blue Sky Communities for Bear Creek Commons [located at 635 64th St. S. in West St. Petersburg]. It has a strong potential for long-term affordability. I always want to see that.”