Mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg in the hot seat about their administrations

The Tampa Bay Rays were hardly a topic of discussion at Suncoast Tiger Bay’s State of the Bay.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch attends the State of the Bay event held by Suncoast Tiger Bay on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard also attended.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch attends the State of the Bay event held by Suncoast Tiger Bay on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard also attended. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Jan. 3|Updated Jan. 3

ST. PETERSBURG — The political and civic organization known to “carve up a politician for lunch” had some pointed questions for Tampa Bay mayors.

Yet none of them focused on the Tampa Bay Rays and their pursuit of a new ballpark, even though representatives sat upfront at the annual Suncoast Tiger Bay’s State of the Bay event Tuesday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Groups bidding to redevelop Tropicana Field will present their plans publicly Wednesday.

For St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, Tuesday’s forum was about understanding his administration’s priorities, particularly when it came to inclusivity.

And Tampa Mayor Jane Castor was asked about the departure of former police Chief Mary O’Connor, who resigned while under investigation for using her position to get out of a traffic stop, and how it could affect Castor’s powers as mayor.

Along with Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who announced that he is not seeking another term when his tenure ends in 2024, all three mayors faced questions about development, transportation and how social media attention affects their decisions. Responding to an audience member’s question, the mayors agreed that their cities could collaborate more and leverage their power in Tallahassee better.

The event began with Tiger Bay’s new president, former Pinellas County School Board member Nicole Carr, and was moderated by Joe Hamilton, co-founder of the St. Petersburg Group and publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst.

After a question about pickleball, which has grown in popularity in each city, Hamilton got down to individual questions.

Welch was asked about being the first Black mayor and what he’s learned about equity. He pointed to his decisions to cancel plans for redeveloping the city’s Municipal Services Center and seek new bids for redeveloping Tropicana Field, saying they will help “make a dent” in the affordable housing crisis, Welch said.

“Some folks aren’t used to a politician actually saying what they mean during the campaign,” he said. “And so there was some surprise when we actually were intentional about equity.”

Welch gave another example: Turning down a new Moffitt Cancer Center campus and residences because he felt the city was giving away land too cheap and not getting enough affordable housing.

“I’m not sure that I’m different from previous mayors, but I’m just direct about what we’re going to do,” he said. “Certainly I think this is the first case where folks understood we meant what we said about potential equity. It’s not about the developer’s priorities, it’s about the community’s priorities.”

Welch was also asked about the future of the municipal marina. Former Mayor Rick Kriseman received an unsolicited proposal to redevelop the marina, but there was pushback from City Council members and marina residents. Plus, it was pricey.

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Welch said the city will put out a new request for proposals, since that is what City Council members seem to want. No St. Petersburg City Council members were present at the event.

With unsolicited proposals, Welch said, “Someone else (is) shaping your vision or your priorities for a parcel. We need to shape our own priorities.”

The last question of the event went to Welch about his column in the Tampa Bay Times, where the mayor wrote that the city has a “moral responsibility to incorporate meaningful community restoration and reparative economic inclusion into this generational development opportunity.”

“Is morality going to trump finances and economics?” asked an audience member.

Welch had a one-word answer: “Yes,” he said to applause.