Many questions remain following Mayor Ken Welch’s selection of the Tampa Bay Rays and Hines partnership to redevelop Tropicana Field and the historic Gas Plant District.
Stakeholders await a commitment from the franchise to stay in St. Petersburg, and taxpayers wonder how team, city and county officials will split the tab for a potential $1.1 billion stadium. Another crucial aspect of the proposal and selection process also looms: Can the mayor and Rays/Hines development team sufficiently address decades of broken promises to former Gas Plant residents and their descendants?
Welch and the Rays leadership inherited the momentous task. The city began razing the predominantly Black and once-thriving neighborhood in the 1980s, long before Major League Baseball awarded St. Petersburg a team. The (Devil) Rays began play in 1998, and Stuart Sternberg took control of the franchise in 2005.
City leaders promised revitalization and jobs in the area, and residents received Tropicana Field and its sprawling parking lots. Fair or not, team officials – and Welch – now have a community looking for them to help right past wrongs.
Local historian Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, also serves as an advisor to the development team. She expressed her optimism and excitement for those answers to the Catalyst following the Mayor’s Jan. 30 announcement.
“It’s very important that the community knows this is just the beginning,” Reese stated. “It’s not the end.”
Reese almost missed Welch’s historic announcement. Coincidentally, that was due to a previously scheduled Jan. 30 virtual meeting with 55 Rays staff members to discuss the location’s rich history. Those sessions will continue.
If the community was to receive the most redevelopment benefits, Reese said she felt all along “it had to be us.”
She reaffirmed her belief that the Rays and Hines team is willing and able to make good on new promises. Those include $50 million for intentional equity initiatives, $15 million for homeownership and rental assistance programs in South St. Pete, building 859 onsite affordable and workforce housing units and an enhanced pedestrian bridge to reconnect the area with Campbell Park.
The team is working with Dantes Partners, a Black-owned development company with an attainable housing focus. A new Woodson African American Museum of Florida, Booker Music Hall and Campbell Park Youth Center will serve as the district’s cultural anchors.
Terri Lipsey Scott, the Woodson Museum’s executive director, said Rays officials pledged $10 million for its construction.
Reese is bringing together former residents of the Gas Plant and Laurel Park neighborhoods and their descendants to preserve and share their stories. Those monthly meetings will also continue. The Gas Plant Community Gathering will also operate a tent with pictures and directories to help people research their families and lost businesses at the Feb. 18 Collard Green Festival.
“I’m so excited about what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it and how we’re going to continue to engage the community,” Reese said. “Hearing their ideas, their concerns, their thoughts and their questions. We just started.”
The Woodson Museum
Scott stressed her tremendous gratitude and appreciation for Welch putting equity and inclusion at the forefront of the redevelopment. A key aspect of that initiative is moving the Woodson Museum from a former public housing community center to a proper facility that reflects its cultural importance.
Three of four development teams proposed a new museum at the Tropicana Field site. Scott relayed her requests to the frontrunners: that they include the Woodson in Phase 1 of the construction process, that the facility does not stand on the site of a former cemetery and that they would consider assisting in fundraising efforts.
In addition to committing $10 million up front, she said that Rays officials pledged their help through the ongoing funding process. Scott noted the initial project estimate was $27 million, including up to four years of operational costs.
However, construction costs have soared, and Scott said, “depending on what it is we’re hopeful for, we see it rising to approximately $40 million.” She anticipates the facility opening alongside a new stadium in time for the 2028 baseball season.
“All we have is a word right now,” Scott said. “So, we’re just hopeful we can finally take folks at their word with a follow-up of a contractual agreement.”
Like Reese, Scott noted the importance of the Gas Plant’s history not becoming lost to time. She believes an onsite African American Museum will help achieve that goal, as would including former street names and renaming others after prominent Black residents.
In addition, she said a purpose-built museum would enable her to display exhibits from the Smithsonian. She also has a relationship with a Tallahassee-based man willing to share pieces from the nation’s largest collection of African American artifacts – once the Woodson has the security and humidity controls needed to house priceless works of art.
Pieces from its current collection languish in storage due to the building’s limitations, and Scott noted that Florida’s other African American museums all rely on retrofitted facilities.
One week from the beginning of Black History Month, she said a new facility “will create the consistency of displaying, educating and ensuring that the educational element of African American History will be reached.”
Scott expressed her pride that Welch is ensuring equity in a reimagined Gas Plant District. She called him a visionary who made inclusivity his mantra.
When asked if Welch having an entire community looking to him to help right past wrongs was a significant weight the mayor must now carry, she said, “I would think that’s a very heavy lift.”
“He’s got some pretty broad shoulders,” added Scott with a laugh. “He can handle it.”
If anyone has any information on the Gas plant residents depicted in the photos, please reach out to the Facebook group here.