Welch: As St. Petersburg moves forward, new Tropicana Field must honor the past

A new request for proposals with a stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays could be ready by this month.
A view of Tropicana Field with St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay in the background.
A view of Tropicana Field with St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay in the background. [ SHADD, DIRK | Times (2018) ]
Published Aug. 11, 2022|Updated Aug. 12, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — So much has changed since the first request for proposals to redevelop Tropicana Field’s prime 86 acres was put out in the summer of 2020.

Despite a pandemic, Tampa Bay underwent a rapid growth spurt. But with it came an increasingly dire affordable housing crisis. And a disparity study found minority-owned businesses were enjoying few of the perks of St. Petersburg’s renaissance even as the city elected its first Black mayor.

To Mayor Ken Welch, that called for a do-over — for soliciting new proposals that took all that under consideration. He said they must address the urgent need for affordable housing and reflect a commitment to hiring minority contractors. And, he said, it needs to offer something tangible that recognizes and remembers the Gas Plant community, the historically Black neighborhood where his family lived and that was razed to build Tropicana Field.

The new Tropicana Field property needs to have something that benefits everyone, including the descendants of those displaced, Welch told the Tampa Bay Times. Minority-owned businesses not just for construction but for ongoing operations. Places for Black residents to live and play, not just work.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch marks 100 days in office as the city's first Black mayor on the steps of City Hall on Monday, April 18, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch marks 100 days in office as the city's first Black mayor on the steps of City Hall on Monday, April 18, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Welch scrapped the prior bid process in June that had been initiated by his predecessor. He announced plans for a new one that is expected this month.

And he gave the expanse a new, old name that reflects his vision: The Historic Gas Plant District.

The clock is ticking as the Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field expires in 2027. But this time around, the Rays are “100 percent committed to staying in Tampa Bay,” said Rays president Brian Auld on Wednesday. The City Council is on board. And St. Petersburg is younger, with a vibrant downtown that will soon link to the beach with bus rapid transit. A wider Howard Frankland will make it easier to get there from Tampa.

“I think it’s a different picture for the viability of a stadium in St. Petersburg than it was a decade ago,” Welch said. “I think developers see the value of those 86 acres. And hopefully, with certainty on the Rays’ participation in that redevelopment, it should be more enticing, I think.”

What St. Petersburg wants

Though community forums were held virtually during the pandemic to solicit public opinion on the redevelopment of Tropicana Field, Welch believes that stifled feedback — another nod in favor of seeking new bids.

The city held three “community conversations” this summer, all of which were at capacity, and used a St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership’s meeting to hear from the business community. They drew residents, activists, developers and political candidates. More than 100 comments were submitted online.

The meetings began with questions about what the public would like to see at the Trop. Participants answered through their smartphones. The answers were compiled in a word cloud in real time for all to see on a projector.

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Answers included equity, affordable housing, a stadium. The business community called for inclusivity, density, opportunity, redevelopment, partnership.

It struck Welch that the answers were similar.

“I think what stands out is folks don’t want to be left behind,” he said. “They don’t want to be forgotten. Don’t want to feel like we’ve just sold out to the highest bidder and it just becomes another expensive area of town where folks don’t feel welcome.”

The St. Petersburg Tenants Union turned out at every meeting, submitting answers to demand public, city-owned housing on the Trop site.

“We’re tired of seeing our city be handed over to corporations. And we don’t want more privately-owned ‘affordable housing’ which is really just a euphemism for developer handouts,” said organizer Karla Correa. “The 86 acres of land should benefit the workers, tenants, and, most importantly, the Black community that was displaced from this land.”

Also at those meetings were representatives from the Tampa Bay Rays and Sugar Hill, a group led by San Francisco developers JMA Ventures that was one of two finalists for the first request for proposals.

They’ve also met with each other. David Carlock, the development manager for Sugar Hill, said the Rays shared their vision for the land and stadium with them. He said Sugar Hill is open to submitting a bid with the Rays as a partner.

“The more we’ve learned about St. Petersburg and the Trop, the more committed we’ve gotten to this, the more excited we’ve gotten about the prospects for what this project can become,” Carlock said.

What the Rays want

Rays President Brian Auld is even feeling better about Tampa Bay these days.

For years the team has said the stadium needs to be closer to the center of the region’s population, voicing a preference for Tampa. But game attendance is exceeding projections for this year. The region is growing faster than ever. And both mayors, Welch and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, are regularly in talks with Auld and the Rays.

“Tampa and St. Pete are both great cities, better than they’ve ever been as far as I’m concerned,” Auld said at the Suncoast Tiger Bay forum earlier this month at Tropicana Field. “For the first time that I can remember, mayors on both sides of the bay are asserting that they will put their absolute best foot forward to make sure that the Rays stay in this region.”

Rays President Brian Auld addresses members of Suncoast Tiger Bay as a featured speaker on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
Rays President Brian Auld addresses members of Suncoast Tiger Bay as a featured speaker on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Tropicana Field is the only site being considered by the Rays in Pinellas County. The Rays need a roof, Auld said, and a smaller stadium. A new ballpark will bring new season ticket holders and sponsors. The team’s goal, Auld said, is to be able to add $10 million to $20 million a year to the payroll.

But Auld pointed out that St. Petersburg would benefit from keeping the Rays around. The Trop, Auld said, is the only venue big enough to hold high school graduations. It has been regularly used as a COVID-19 testing site. When emergencies happen, police set up headquarters there.

“That entire project is going to work so much better if you have an anchor tenant that’s bringing over a million people each year (split over) 81 times at a minimum to the site, and we expect it to be open and available 365 days a year,” Auld said. “Without it, St. Pete needs something.”

Rays majority owner Stuart Sternberg also made an appearance at Tiger Bay and weighed in.

“A very important part is integrating wherever the stadium’s going to be and what is around it, and making sure that it jibes with the entertainment district or something that people visit and want to come to not just for baseball, but take the baseball and then go visit what else is around it,” he said. “You can’t just stick it out in no man’s land surrounded by 50 acres of land.”