A reset in St. Petersburg: A look at Mayor Ken Welch’s first year in office

St. Pete’s first Black mayor said he’s proudest of halting projects so that more residents can benefit.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch gives a speech during Enchant Christmas at Tropicana Field on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch gives a speech during Enchant Christmas at Tropicana Field on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Jan. 6|Updated Jan. 6

ST. PETERSBURG — A month before he was even sworn in, Mayor Ken Welch set the tone for his first year in office.

His predecessor, Rick Kriseman, had just named the team he had picked for the city’s most high-profile redevelopment project: Tropicana Field. Then-mayor-elect Welch signaled he would not honor the selection. He saw a generational opportunity to do right by the Black community displaced when the dome was built in the 1980s. Welch wanted a significant investment in housing amid an affordability crisis. The effort under Kriseman, he said, didn’t do enough.

Once in office, Welch called for a do-over.

His new request for proposals emphasized affordable housing and opportunities for minority residents and business owners — and ideally a new baseball stadium that keeps the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team in St. Petersburg.

In a city where so much has changed, Welch has made clear that little is off-limits. He quashed plans for a Moffitt Cancer satellite campus downtown. He’s indicated he’s not wedded to keeping Albert Whitted Airport on the St. Pete waterfront. He’s hit reset so often that it’s become a hallmark of his administration.

Welch describes his approach as seeking “inclusive progress.” His priority, he says, is to reassess major projects through the lens of racial equity, making sure Black residents finally enjoy the fruits of the boom times.

But that has put him at odds with some developers and other city leaders who would prefer to see the redevelopment projects move ahead faster.

Welch says he’s simply doing what he said he would do when he ran for mayor. He said there are more important things than developments.

“Is morality going to trump finances and economics?” Welch was asked at a Tiger Bay meeting this week.

“Yes,” Welch said to applause.

‘A heavy weight’

Welch made history when he became St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor.

He embraced results from a study commissioned by his predecessor that found the city’s Black residents didn’t receive the same opportunities and experience the same quality of life as their white neighbors. Armed with those findings, he made addressing those disparities his top priority.

Welch is moving city government in the right direction, said Esther Matthews, president of the NAACP St. Petersburg branch. Welch’s creation of a new office at City Hall was designed to give more contracts to minority businesses, Matthews said.

“It’s a point of pride to say he’s the first African American mayor, but it’s a heavy weight as well,” she said. “The African American community is looking at him to do a lot.”

Welch said he doesn’t feel any particular pressure as mayor — except to get affordable and workforce housing right while making sure all voices are heard.

“My job is to represent the people of the city,” Welch told the Times last month. “They clearly talked about, in the campaign, that they wanted inclusive progress. They didn’t want to feel left behind.”

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But, while momentous, his first year was not without stumbles.

Welch’s communications director abruptly quit in September, alleging bullying by Stephanie Owens, who served as Welch’s deputy mayor and was his campaign manager and transition director. Owens then resigned.

Meanwhile, some at City Hall complained that the mayor was rarely at the office. A Times review of his electronic key usage showed that he entered City Hall a third of all work days since he took office.

Welch said he was meeting constituents in the community or working from home and hosting virtual meetings, an approach adopted by much of the workforce since the pandemic.

Early in the year, Welch avoided an impasse between the union and the city when he agreed not to tie cost-of-living raises to performance evaluations. Still, city workers say they struggle to live in the city limits, and that high turnover indicates the city workforce suffers from burnout.

But affordability is an issue felt elsewhere and Welch has tried addressing it, said Cricket Brehm, a water resources worker who serves as the highest elected union official in the city.

“There just hasn’t been easy answers,” Brehm said. “I think we as a union are completely good with this mayor.”

Hitting reset

Welch inherited several projects from Kriseman that he has canceled:

• He called off redeveloping the city’s Municipal Services Center. Welch said he believes the property is worth more now.

• He plans to reissue a bid request for the downtown marina, which was to be handed over to a private operator.

• He revisited the leases on Tangerine Plaza, the city-owned shopping center that can’t hold onto grocers in southern St. Petersburg’s food desert, and the Manhattan Casino, once a cultural center of the city’s Black community.

But his biggest reset — what he considers his top achievement — came at the start, when he rejected the group Kriseman had selected to redevelop the Tropicana Field, then sought new proposals.

Welch said home prices and rents had shot up since the initial bids were solicited, and the proposed redevelopment should make affordable housing a greater priority. He also said the original proposals didn’t do enough to honor the Gas Plant district, the historically Black neighborhoods and business center where his grandfather once owned a woodyard that was bulldozed to build the Trop.

While the clock is ticking because the Rays’ lease on the property expires in 2027, the 86 acres on the edge of downtown represent a transformational opportunity to set things right. Welch said it’s worth the delay to ensure that all the city’s residents benefit from what comes next.

“Any business has to update their plan based on current realities,” Welch said, “and that’s what we did in all those cases.”

There was more. A month into his term, he made clear he was open to considering other uses for Albert Whitted that would benefit all residents of the community.

Voters overwhelmingly chose to preserve the waterfront airport 20 years ago. Welch said the issue resurfaced because the City Council was due for an airport master plan update.

“It wasn’t a first-year item that I planned on,” he said. “I wasn’t going to take the chance that it seemed like it had the blessing of my administration, when it doesn’t.”

Former Mayor Bill Foster, who said Welch has done a good job in his first year, said he thinks the airport should be left alone.

Outgoing City Council chairperson Gina Driscoll agreed.

“It’s a point of pride for our city,” she said. “If it’s not broken, don’t break it.”

In August, Welch called off plans negotiated by Kriseman with Moffitt and others to build a cancer treatment center, hotel and residential building. Welch said it didn’t include enough affordable housing.

Even some of his supporters expressed surprise when Welch turned down the cancer center — going against the recommendation of a newly created advisory council.

Former Welch fundraiser Scott Wagman, who is a developer, said projects are caught in a “body slam” between the mayor’s heightened demand for affordable housing and rising building and labor costs.

“Both of those elements have dramatically changed risks and rewards in St. Pete,” said Wagman, who said that while he still strongly supports Welch, the mayor’s popularity with developers is waning.

“A lot of people missed the fact that he was very serious about righting the wrongs that occurred in the Black community over the past 60 years,” Wagman said. “In some respects, that has been a jolt to the older status quo citizens of St. Petersburg.”

Restarting the Trop redevelopment process and canceling the Moffitt deal were good moves, said John Muhammad, who recently was appointed to the City Council. But, he said, the mayor missed an opportunity to settle a dispute with the operators of the Manhattan Casino. They say they can’t turn around the St. Petersburg landmark because the city won’t help renovate the building on 22nd Street South. Welch has said it’s time for new investors and new ideas.

Welch said that St. Petersburg’s redevelopment pace has not slowed, saying the city broke records for issuing permits in 2022. He said permits were up 7% this year and, for the first time, the value of that new development exceeds $1 billion.

Looking ahead

Newly elected City Council chairperson Brandi Gabbard said in a statement that she has found Welch to be collaborative, open to new ideas and a steady, diligent leader.

“The first year of any new administration isn’t without hiccups,” she said, “but I feel that Mayor Welch has shown the same consistent leadership that we have come to know from him over his decades of service to our community,”

Muhammad said he’d like to see more creativity and risk-taking from the Welch administration, such as putting rent control on the ballot and letting voters decide whether to approve it. But he understands why a Black mayor would be hesitant.

Welch doesn’t believe that rent control is feasible and fears that the Republican-controlled Legislature would quickly overrule any Democratic-controlled city that attempted it.

Many of the projects that were put on hold in 2022 will resurface this year. Welch is slated to announce his pick of a developer for the Historic Gas Plant redevelopment during his State of the City at the end of January. While the first request for proposals under Kriseman netted nine bids, Welch received four proposals.

Welch said a successful first term as mayor would see the city grow in more ways than just real estate. There would have to be more opportunities for youth, especially educational ones; more resources dedicated to improving the lives of residents; and more safe and healthy neighborhoods.

“That’s what matters, because no one’s going to care who the mayor was 20 years from now,” he said. “But they will care if we got transportation that works and moves folks from jobs to homes. If we’ve got investment in smaller minority businesses. If the (Trop redevelopment) provides a link to housing and office space and the other needs that we have in the community.”

In November, residents approved moving municipal elections to even-numbered years in line with state and federal elections. That gave Welch a fifth year to accomplish his goals. He hasn’t yet committed to running for reelection in 2026.

“It’s early,” he said. “Haven’t really considered it. Just trying to do the job in front of me right now.”