Mayors Jane Castor, Ken Welch discuss Rays stadium, Florida Legislature

Leaders of Tampa Bay’s two biggest cities met in St. Petersburg for a “State of the Bay” event held by Suncoast Tiger Bay.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, left, and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch address questions Friday during a meeting of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club on the “State of the Bay” at the James Museum for Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, left, and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch address questions Friday during a meeting of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club on the “State of the Bay” at the James Museum for Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 29, 2022|Updated Jan. 29, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch are political allies — until it comes to the Tampa Bay Rays. Each believes Major League Baseball belongs on their side of the bay.

Naturally, they faced many questions about the ray in the room at Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s annual mayoral forum at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. Led by J.C. Pritchett, the group’s first Black president, Tiger Bay holds events to discuss political issues and ask questions of elected officials.

Now that the Rays’ proposed split season with Montreal is dead, the team must decide between St. Petersburg and Tampa. Welch is reviewing redevelopment proposals for the 86 acres of Tropicana Field, the Rays’ home through 2027. A focus on affordable housing for those making $20 to $25 an hour and minority contracting are top priorities.

In Tampa, the Rays have been aggressively pursuing a site in Ybor City. It could come with a roofed stadium and a more generous financial incentive for the team. Could that lead to an intercity spat?

“First of all, I have never even considered that there would be any type of bidding war or, you know, pull and push,” Castor said. “I think we’re on the same page, that we all feel that we’re too big of a region to lose a major league sporting franchise.”

Welch reiterated that the Rays are secondary to his first priority — equitable development and jobs promised to the Gas Plant community, where he grew up before it was displaced by Tropicana Field.

“I think the Rays can be a part of that,” he said. “A lot was sacrificed in order to bring the Rays here.”

Yet Welch said that he’s rebuilding relationships with the Rays and county commissioners to use $100 million of bed tax paid by tourists for a new ballpark. He also pitched a waterfront ballpark as “iconic and unmatched.” Castor said that there would be a “bottom line” when it comes to public funding.

“On our side of the bay, I believe that we have one last at-bat, so to speak,” Welch said. “I want to put our best effort forward.”

He added: “We need to know that the Rays are seriously looking at St. Petersburg. So on top of all that, they need to be a true partner and not just think this will be funded solely on the backs of the taxpayers.”

The mayors agreed on a “right-sized” convention center in St. Petersburg and disagreed on issues arising with Tampa Bay Water and how the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council was renamed.

Both mayors sounded off on a new bill proposed that would allow municipalities to be sued if they enact a law that cuts into business profits.

“It’s simply ridiculous,” Castor said. “This continued sort of attack on home rule, it gets more and more egregious every year that the Legislature gets together up in Tallahassee.... This will hamstring any local municipality from keeping business from doing anything, really.”

The best question asked Friday — determined by Tiger Bay’s panel of judges — was from Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers. She asked if the mayors would direct police to enforce a law enacted last year that would ban individuals from giving assistance to those standing in line to vote.

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The question drew swift responses in the negative from both mayors. For that, Flowers won her second “Carve up a politician for lunch” mug since she became an elected official.

“Again, the level of fixing problems that don’t exist,” Welch said. “You had 67 election supervisors, as you know, bipartisan, tell them that the 2020 elections were handled very well in the state of Florida. There is no fraud. And so the Legislature continues to try to fix problems that aren’t out there. And they’re making it more difficult, as you stated, for folks who vote.”