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Welch a longtime player in the city's race relations

Garbage strikes and civil rights marches. The ThunderDome and the rise and fall of Bay Plaza. For more than three decades, David Welch helped shape this city's unfolding history.

Welch's losing bid Tuesday for a fourth term on the St. Petersburg City Council loosens another link to the city's turbulent, dynamic past.

Much of that past centers on relations between black and white residents. And many episodes in that saga center on Welch.

In 1981, Welch, now 69, became only the second African-American elected to the City Council. But his public work extends back to the 1950s, when he wasa young teacher in a segregated school.

By 1965, a federal grand jury in Tampa had concluded that officials at then-Gibbs Junior College, where Welch taught accounting, had fraudulently diverted about $22,600 in student aid funds.

The scandal hastened the end of the all-black college. Welch was never charged with a crime, but he was suspended from his job for two years without pay as the investigation dragged on. A native of St. Petersburg and newly married, Welch took a job as a laborer at a local plant. His earnings were cut in half.

The Pinellas County School Board would eventually give Welch his job back. By 1966, he was assistant finance director at St. Petersburg Vocational Technical Institute, then at the leading edge of desegregation.

In the summer of 1968, already-tense race relations gave way to open defiance. St. Petersburg's sanitation workers walked out on strike to protest low wages and deplorable working conditions. Marches through downtown and out to city officials' suburban homes became almost daily occurrences. Tension ran high.

The 116-day strike ended only after Welch and a handful of others were able to cajole workers, city administrators and local business owners to the negotiating table.

From that experience sprang the Community Alliance, with Welch as co- chairman. The wide-ranging, biracial group has been mediating the city's most controversial social issues ever since.

Welch became increasingly involved, especially in issues that played out at the street level.

By the late 1970s, he was monitoring police radio dispatches on a scanner at home. When confrontations between white police officers and black bystanders grew tense, Welch and a couple of his friends would show up to quell rumors and keep things calm.

By 1981, when Welch was elected to the council, he relied on a strategy that generated votes from black and white neighborhoods alike. He played down racial issues in public and instead hammered home his accounting and budgetary background.

Throughout his three four-year terms on the council, Welch has supported virtually every economic redevelopment, jobs and business-growth program that came down the pike. Such projects result in more jobs and economic prosperity at all levels of society, he has said.

He loved Pier Park, for example. Even as voters citywide were rejecting the $72-million waterfront redevelopment project by a 3-to-2 ratio in 1984, black voters were solidly behind it 3-to-1.

"The black community is saying, "Yes, there needs to be an opportunity for jobs and for economic expansion,' " Welch said at the time.

Less than a year later, plans for what would eventually become the ThunderDome _ now Tropicana Field _ were proposed. Welch climbed aboard early.

And when he drew black community activist Alvelita Donaldson as his council challenger that year, she hammered him at every opportunity for his stadium support. The project would kill the Laurel Park housing project, she said, and force hundreds of nearby families to relocate.

Welch remained steadfast: "I fully support the downtown multipurpose stadium project," he said just days before winning a second term in 1985.

By late 1985, it was an exasperated Welch who demanded some progress on the stalled redevelopment plan for the Vinoy Resort _ or else.

"I'm going to demand some action on the Vinoy and Soreno hotel," Welch fumed at his council colleagues. "Or I'm going to recommend condemnation."

The Vinoy got done.

Welch was just as big a booster for the Bay Plaza downtown redevelopment project, unveiled in the mid-1980s. He supported it to the end, in late 1995, when it became clear that the project was unworkable.

In the 1997 campaign, Welch had been accused of being hard to reach, and that clearly annoyed him.

Recalling the civil unrest last fall, he would reply: "I'm out there night and day, talking to the people on the streets. My office is right there on the street. When the incidents happened, who was there in less than five minutes? I was there, night and day."