New mayor, new Albert Whitted ideas. Could St. Petersburg’s airport be a ballpark?

Mayor Ken Welch announced he wanted to study the airport and renewed conversations with the Rays.
A view of the Albert Whitted Airport entrance at The Hangar Restaurant on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
A view of the Albert Whitted Airport entrance at The Hangar Restaurant on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 4, 2022|Updated Feb. 4, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Revisiting whether Albert Whitted Airport is the best use of 110 acres of downtown waterfront space is a ritual that takes place every decade.

Within a month of taking office, Mayor Ken Welch wants to further study the airport for “current and potential future community impact,” he told St. Petersburg City Council members in a memo last week. He also spread the word on his official and personal accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

Then on Thursday, Welch declared via social media “St. Pete is back in the game!” following a meeting Wednesday with Pinellas County officials and the Tampa Bay Rays to “re-engage with urgency” to keep baseball in St. Petersburg.

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton and Pinellas County Commission Chairperson Charlie Justice confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times that Albert Whitted was mentioned in the conversation as a potential site. There was more focus, they said, on neighboring waterfront site Al Lang Stadium and the Tropicana Field redevelopment.

They insisted, however, that it was a general conversation that “reset” talks with the team following Major League Baseball’s dismissal of a split season between Tampa Bay and Montreal, and that all options were on the table.

“The bottom line is, it’s good after every decade or 20 years to look and say, ‘OK, what’s happening. This is 100 acres of valuable land,’” said Justice, whose at-large district includes Albert Whitted. “Does it make sense to keep doing it? Does it need to be changed? We are open to that opportunity.”

City spokeswoman Janelle Irwin Taylor denied a reporter’s request for an interview with Welch and referred to his public statements and the memo sent to City Council.

“We are in the early stages of this process and there is nothing further to add at this time,” she wrote in a text message.

Through a spokeswoman, Rays President Brian Auld gave this statement: “We’ve enjoyed an excellent relationship with Mayor Welch for more than a decade, are encouraged by his spirit of collaboration, and look forward to working alongside him and his administration.”

Albert Whitted looking to expand

Welch’s memo to City Council came the day before a planned presentation to a council committee meeting on Albert Whitted’s master plan. It’s a routine, comprehensive study of the airport that is required by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation.

Doug DiCarlo, the city’s master plan consultant, walked the council members through the airport’s 2019 study of its operations and its 20-year projections. To plan for the future, the airport must be modified to accommodate “critical aircraft,” what the FAA defines as a group of aircraft that make regular use of the airport.

That could potentially mean shifting and extending the runway to the east into Tampa Bay, a costly project that would take at least a decade and is also not a new idea. It would also provide the University of South Florida St. Petersburg with more vertical space to build more floors.

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A view of airplanes parked as another plane takes off from the runway at Albert Whitted Airport, 107 8th Ave SE, on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
A view of airplanes parked as another plane takes off from the runway at Albert Whitted Airport, 107 8th Ave SE, on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2022) ]

‘Déjà vu’

City officials have been proposing alternative uses for Albert Whitted’s waterfront land since 1935.

There has been talk of building a convention center and an “urban village” of townhomes and restaurants. In 2003, a referendum was held on whether the airport should be kept open forever and if a park should be created in place of it. Voters overwhelmingly chose to keep the airport open in perpetuity and rejected the park idea.

Former Mayor Rick Kriseman asked the same question about best use of the airport in 2014.

“This is déjà vu as far as I’m concerned,” said Jack Tunstill, a pilot instructor and chairperson of the Albert Whitted Airport Advisory Committee.

He pointed out that even if another referendum were to be held and pass, the city is bound to a 20-year agreement to operate the airport with every FAA grant it receives. The city received a grant last year.

City Council Chairperson Gina Driscoll, whose district includes Albert Whitted, agreed that it’s a good time to take a look at the airport. But she wasn’t keen on putting a ballpark there, noting that the airport is a unique offering and key to economic development.

“It would be such a heavy lift and we have an easier option in the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site that should create the best opportunity there,” Driscoll said.

Chris Steinocher, President and CEO of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, said he appreciated Welch’s “audacious idea.”

“We’ve got a community that’s different than it was five years ago, different than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “I’m appreciative of the innovation to get to the next level. I’m optimistic it’s a conversation our community is ready for.”