ST. PETERSBURG — Shirley Jennings lost touch with childhood friends and neighbors when the city demolished the historically Black Gas Plant community, clearing the way for what would later become Tropicana Field in the 1980s.
Gone were the ice cream shop where her friends gathered, her family’s church and the building where her father owned Jennings Fish Market. It was a story that played out across the country in the second half of the last century as Black communities were torn apart to make way for interstates and sports arenas, all in the name of progress.
The Jennings family would later settle in Campbell Park, a predominantly Black neighborhood south of Interstate 175 across from Tropicana Field. Shirley Jennings has called it home since age 19. She’s 67 now, and like many of her older neighbors, she’s grown anxious as the city stirs up new plans for Tropicana Field.
The Tampa Bay Rays and international real estate partner Hines want to build a stadium there. They would surround it with homes, shops and an entertainment district featuring an African American history museum, complete with a more inviting bridge across I-175 to Campbell Park.
Ken Welch, St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor, whose family grew up in the Gas Plant district, says this time the city plans to do right by a vibrant community that had been replaced by surface parking. He has pledged a once-in-a-generation makeover that will include affordable housing for working families, jobs they can walk to and cultural offerings that welcome all the city’s residents.
Jennings is hopeful this time will be different, too. But she and her neighborhood wonder about what all that investment might mean for already gentrifying Campbell Park.
“As long as they don’t come to move me out of my house,” Jennings said, “because a lot of people think that’s what’s coming.”
“A very eerie feeling”
After all these years, Stephanie Smart has never been to Tropicana Field. She refuses.
Smart’s grandmother was one of the last holdouts when the city began buying property to clear the Gas Plant area. Her grandmother’s home was paid for, and she successfully fought the city to get enough money to pay off her next house. Smart was a teenager at the time.
“There are people that still remember the stuff that happened in the Gas Plant area and remember that their grandparents stayed in these places,” said Smart, 62. “And there’s still a little anger behind how that went down.”
Smart is from Campbell Park. After serving in the military, she returned to a changed neighborhood in 2018.
Campbell Park is becoming less Black. In 1990, all but 66 residents out of a population of 1,978 were Black. Last year, the total population decreased to 1,309 while the white population more than doubled, to 153 residents. Another 94 residents identify as “other.”
“A lot of the traditions and culture of our community that we’ve lived with for what, 60 years, I think it’s going to be lost,” Smart said. “But I would be like my grandmother. They’re gonna have to kick me out. I’m gonna fight.”
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Before the construction of I-175 in the late 1970s, Campbell Park and the Gas Plant were much more connected. Former NAACP St. Petersburg branch president Maria Scruggs thinks that narrative gets lost in the Gas Plant story.
“The whole historic relevance for me is not so much about the Gas Plant, but the economic impact, the cultural impact on the African community as a whole,” said Scruggs, 65, who lives just outside of Campbell Park in her family home on Melrose Avenue South. “What happened in the historic Gas Plant … definitely served as the basis, in my humble opinion, as the dismantling of the culture of the African American community.”
She recalled a Campbell Park meeting during former Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration as he considered redevelopment proposals. Only three Black residents attended.
“There is a very eerie feeling in the African community about the loss,” she said. “I’m not sure that that’s being understood or even captured or even talked about.”
Neighborhood of the year
Younger residents, many of whom are not Black, have moved to Campbell Park for its central location, higher ground, century-old bungalows and relative affordability.
Homeowners Justin Cournoyer and Franklin Alves, both 31, have learned the history and are active in the neighborhood association. They welcome new residents taking ownership of homes neglected by absentee landlords.
“I think the city wants to see our neighborhood succeed and get better,” Cournoyer said. “Are you going to have this gorgeous, multibillion-dollar development and then you’re going to have this neighborhood that’s stuck and never progressed?”
Campbell Park was named the 2022 Neighborhood of the Year by Welch. It was the first community since 2014 to submit an updated neighborhood plan of residents’ goals and aspirations, which was accepted by the St. Petersburg City Council last month. That makes Campbell Park eligible for public money to pay for community enhancements.
Property owner Steve Morrison uses that news, and redevelopment plans for the Trop’s 86 acres, to market his own vacant land there. According to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s website, he owns 23 properties in Campbell Park through his company, Sunshine City LLC.
“It’s official, Mayor Welch has selected Hines / Tampa Bay Rays for the multibillion-dollar redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District,” a listing reads.
Morrison serves on the citizen advisory committee for the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Association. He declined to comment.
Smart reconnected with Lisa Thomas, also a Campbell Park native, at the neighborhood association. They met at Northeast High. Smart is the association’s secretary, and Thomas, 62, is the president.
“As long as I’m here, I’m gonna fight for the integrity of the long-term residents that are still here and the integrity of our neighborhood, the culture of it,” Thomas said.
Gwendolyn Reese said she gets it: The heartbreak, the disappointment, the skepticism. Not just because of broken political promises that the original Tropicana Field would benefit the city’s Black residents, but because of how long it has taken before anyone tried to make good on those pledges.
“I understand that because that’s been the history of this country,” she said. “But this is the time for the city and the developers to prove that wrong and to show that what we said we’re going to do, what the mayor is saying we must do, will be done.”
She lived in the Gas Plant area from age 2 to fifth grade. Reese is a historian, president of the African American Heritage Association and a consultant to the Hines/Rays development team.
Reese said the team’s proposal not only invests in the old Gas Plant land, but in the southern part of the city through better-paying jobs. The city is requiring that the Trop site plans connect the development to south St. Petersburg “physically, economically and emotionally.”
The Rays’ front office showed up to the last Campbell Park Neighborhood Association meeting. They brought renderings and took questions about hiring plans, minority participation and resources for the neighborhood.
Rays co-president Brian Auld defended Welch after a Harbordale resident said she feels like the mayor forgets the south side.
“I would say from my conversations with the mayor, this neighborhood and the ones like it are the ones he’s most focused on, and how we get resources where they need to go,” Auld said.
Welch’s grandfather owned a woodyard in the Gas Plant off 16th Street. When he announced he was going to start over with the redevelopment plans there, he did it on that strip of land while wielding his grandfather’s ax handle.
“Stay in contact, watch us, keep us accountable,” he said. “I think you can already see this is a different path and we are serious about intentional equity and remembering those promises.”
Jennings, formerly from the Gas Plant and now living in Campbell Park, said she will keep watch.
“The only way I’ll be happy is if it benefits everybody,” she said.