St. Petersburg candidates: Next mayor should decide on Trop redevelopment

Wengay Newton, Darden Rice and Ken Welch each expressed skepticism about heavy public spending for a new stadium.
An aerial view of Tropicana Field and the surrounding area looking east towards downtown, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
An aerial view of Tropicana Field and the surrounding area looking east towards downtown, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 14, 2021|Updated May 14, 2021

The three most prominent current candidates for mayor of St. Petersburg – Wengay Newton, Darden Rice and Ken Welch – said this week that the next mayor, not current Mayor Rick Kriseman, should make the final decision on a plan to redevelop Tropicana Field.

Kriseman has narrowed the field of developers who made proposals for the redevelopment project to four and, clashing with the City Council, hired a consultant without their approval to evaluate the proposals.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Wengay Newton.
St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Wengay Newton.

In interviews this week, Newton said Kriseman won’t be able to negotiate effectively with the Tampa Bay Rays because he’s “a lame duck” mayor, who’ll leave office after the Nov. 2 mayoral election.

Rice said Kriseman “is running out of time” to finalize plans for the redevelopment and added, “It makes no sense to me to move forward when we don’t know what the Rays are going to do.”

And Welch said the groundwork that’s been laid by the current administration won’t go to waste, but, “Considering time and logistics at this point, the council’s position and the impasse with the Rays, my view is it’s going to fall to the next mayor.”

Welch and Newton also both said the city should have some certainty about the Rays’ plans before making a decision on the project.

The three all expressed skepticism about heavy public spending for a new stadium.

Welch said any public money should come only from the hotel bed tax, not property taxes; Rice said any public spending should come only if there are “very clear public benefits” in the proposal, in accord with a new policy developed by the council.

Newton said the city can do better than the Rays’ proposal for a stadium two-thirds funded by public money – “They’re doing that because they know they’re dealing with a lame duck mayor.”

Differences among the three leading candidates were mostly on nuance and details.

Rice said she’s undecided about the Rays’ proposal to split their home seasons between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, but that the public “will let us know pretty clearly how they feel about the idea.”

St. Petersburg City Council member and mayoral candidate Darden Rice.
St. Petersburg City Council member and mayoral candidate Darden Rice. [ Photo courtesy of Darden Rice ]

Welch and Newton both said they were open to the split season idea, but with conditions.

Newton said the city should have full, no-cost use of the stadium when the Rays weren’t using it, unlike the current arrangement which restricts other uses. Welch said he believes the poor rollout of the idea by the Rays soured the public on it, but that it could have benefits for the area similar to those of spring training.

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Welch noted that because of changes in baseball viewing habits during the pandemic, “A smaller, boutique stadium has a lot of upside.” He said an expensive new stadium failed to solve the Miami Marlins’ attendance problem and might not solve the problem here.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Ken Welch.
St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Ken Welch. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2018) ]

Rice emphasized that the character of the new development should match “the authenticity and vibe” of St. Petersburg, while “creating an economic engine for the whole city but also for the Black community historically centered in that community.”

“It should be accessible and fun for everyone, including green space, not a gleaming metropolis of shiny buildings isolated from the rest of the city.”

In what sounded like an implicit criticism of Kriseman’s approach to the negotiations, Rice said, “It’s not my style to land broadsides in the press — my leadership style is cooperative.”

Welch emphasized the need for renewal of the former Black community in the Gas Plant area, displaced for the stadium and Interstate 275, noting his grandfather’s lumberyard and his uncle’s Prayer Tower church, among the homes, businesses and institutions lost. The community, he said, hasn’t been compensated.

“That is, in my view, sacred ground that was given to the city in pursuit of economic development and jobs, not just baseball,” he said.

Newton contended that his experience as a state House member former City Council member would give him an edge in negotiating state participation in the deal with state government officials, including the governor and House leadership, and in negotiating with the Rays. He said the council and city attorneys should be involved in the negotiations.

Labor council neutral in mayoral primary

The AFL-CIO’s West Central Florida Labor Council, an umbrella group of most of the area’s largest unions, will stay neutral in the St. Petersburg mayor’s race, at least until the primary.

Members of the council were concerned that the field of candidates may not yet be complete, and felt the three most prominent candidates — Newton, Rice and Welch — are all labor-friendly Democrats, said council treasurer and spokeswoman Cheryl Schroeder.

“One of the discussion items is that we would be well served by any of the three,” she said. “So without really knowing where the field is, we’re prepared to let the race play out in the primary and reevaluate after the primary.”

The council held screening interview in April, with candidates Newton, Rice, Welch and Marcile Powers participating.

The council’s member unions are free to endorse independently. Among the larger groups that may be interested in the race are building trades, which interact with the city over construction regulations and other matters.

Local reps vote to oust Cheney

Two of the three Republican Congress members representing Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key, both said this week they voted with the majority of the GOP House caucus to oust Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her leadership position.

The third, Rep. Scott Franklin of Lakeland, declined to say how he voted in the secret ballot.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

In a statement from his office, Bilirakis said he looks forward “to working with a GOP Conference chair who shares my views, and will work in unison with me and my colleagues,” and then criticized what he called the “leftist dysfunction” of the Biden administration.

Buchanan said he supports “a unified leadership team that shares a forward-looking vision.”