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At triumphant State of the City, Welch makes up for lost inauguration

Ken Welch’s biggest moment yet as mayor — including big news on the Trop redevelopment — focused on unity and diversity.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch walks from City Hall to give his 2023 State of the City address Monday.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch walks from City Hall to give his 2023 State of the City address Monday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 30|Updated Jan. 30

ST. PETERSBURG — Ken Welch never got a real inauguration. Last January, three days before he was to take office as St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor, Welch tested positive for COVID-19. He was sworn in remotely.

Welch finally got some pomp and circumstance Monday with his first State of the City address. Wearing a blue tie that looked cut from the near-cloudless sky, he orated from the steps of City Hall. The event was headlined by his biggest move yet as mayor — picking a team led by the Tampa Bay Rays to redevelop Tropicana Field — and culminated with the boisterous marching band from Lakewood High, his alma mater, playing him off.

It was a celebratory scene with an emphasis on embracing the city’s diversity and striving for unity, from invocations by a trio of faith leaders to the reading, in English and Spanish, of a poem by city poet laureate Gloria Muñoz. Those themes resonated, too, in Welch’s announcement on the Trop redevelopment, a process in which the mayor has centered not just a desire to keep baseball in town but also to rectify the sins of the past.

The Lakewood High School marching band performs after marching into the stands at the beginning of the State of the City address Monday in St. Petersburg.
The Lakewood High School marching band performs after marching into the stands at the beginning of the State of the City address Monday in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Decades after the city destroyed the historically Black Gas Plant District to build the stadium, Welch has positioned the redevelopment as an essential source of affordable housing and business opportunities for minority communities.

“The best path for progress is the path that includes opportunities for everyone,” he said. “And yes, in St. Petersburg, history does matter.”

Early in his speech, he took a page from the pastors in the crowd and told onlookers to turn and greet their neighbors by saying “We are St. Pete,” a phrase emblazoned on the programs and postcards handed out to attendees. He spent several minutes putting the spotlight on the work of city employees ranging from the rank-and-file to high-level officials.

“A good idea is a good idea no matter what the source,” he said.

He credited the city’s 3,500 employees with the highlights of his first year in office. Those, he said, included the extension of the city’s $15 minimum wage to all city workers (it previously only applied to full-time and some long-tenured part-time employees) and negotiations with employee unions; a banner year in construction and permitting; and the launch of the Sunrunner, the downtown-to-the-beach rapid bus service that began development under his predecessor, Rick Kriseman.

St. Petersburg City Council members Gina Driscoll and Ed Montanari stand and clap along with other city council members during Mayor Ken Welch's State of the City address Monday.
St. Petersburg City Council members Gina Driscoll and Ed Montanari stand and clap along with other city council members during Mayor Ken Welch's State of the City address Monday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
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Welch campaigned on a platform of racial equity and fulfilling on broken promises made to Black residents. He spent much of his first year hitting reset on the prior administration’s plans and priorities in order to lay the groundwork for his own term. He has said he tossed out Kriseman’s selection for the Trop because it didn’t do enough to “make a dent” in the city’s affordable housing crisis and economic racial disparities.

In addition to the Tropicana Field saga, Welch nixed plans for a downtown Moffitt Cancer Center satellite campus, signaled ambivalence about keeping Albert Whitted Airport on the waterfront and canceled the redevelopment of the city’s Municipal Services Center.

Welch’s address had an inaugural feel for another reason: He still has four years left as mayor. In November, residents voted in favor of a measure to move municipal elections to even-numbered years, in line with state and federal elections. Welch hasn’t said whether he plans to run again when his term ends in 2026.

On Monday, Welch hinted at some of his priorities for the year ahead: more affordable housing, “social service hubs” built with federal funding in marginalized communities and the continued development of an equity office in his cabinet. He pledged an “unwavering” commitment to human rights — the city received a perfect score last year on an annual report by the Human Rights Commission — including LGBTQ rights.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch gives his 2023 State of the City on the steps of City Hall on Monday in St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch gives his 2023 State of the City on the steps of City Hall on Monday in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

As his speech neared an end, Welch signaled he was about to talk about what most were there to hear: the Trop. There was a long pause, some rustling in the crowd.

The land where the Trop stands, where the Gas Plant once stood, is “sacred ground,” he said. He drew a line between the long-broken promises from decades ago — that the redevelopment would lead to better jobs and housing for the Black residents there — and what now sits on the horizon, invoking the poet Langston Hughes as he spoke.

The story of that land is “the story of a dream deferred,” he said. “It will no longer be a dream denied.”