ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Ken Welch is back to talking about Albert Whitted.
Welch is once again calling for the city to look at whether an airport is the best way to use 120 acres on the downtown waterfront. He is getting ready to hire a company to do an economic analysis of Albert Whitted Airport and what its value is to the city compared to other things that could go there — an expansion of the city’s innovation district, for instance, more park space, or even workforce housing.
Welch has posed the question before about whether an airport should sit on such prime property. So have some of his predecessors, only to retreat amid fierce opposition from airport users, people who think the small planes coming and going from the airport add to downtown’s charm and others who note St. Petersburg’s role in aviation history.
But now Welch’s administration is rekindling the conversation.
The city’s economic development director, Brian Caper, at a panel held Thursday morning by the Urban Land Institute, said the city is currently in the process of selecting a firm to do the analysis. It would look at the economic, fiscal and social benefit of the airport today and 20 years from now. It would also attempt to measure the potential benefits of other uses.
Welch was also on the panel, which was about the “restorative economic promise” of the Historic Gas Plant redevelopment and Tropicana Field. He thanked Caper for bringing up Albert Whitted, which was used as an example of how the city is “creating change” beyond the redevelopment.
“I know there’s, for good reason, folks who have wanted to avoid that conversation,” he said. “The Albert Whitted conversation is a great example of when you talk to folks in private, they say, ‘Man, we have to be looking at different uses for that.’ No one wants to have that public conversation because they don’t want to be in the middle of a political fight.”
“It’s really not about the politics,” the mayor said. “It’s about what do the next 50 to 100 years look like for our city.”
Not even a month into his tenure as mayor last year, Welch told the St. Petersburg City Council in a memo that he wanted to further study the airport for “current and potential future community impact.” Welch has said he only brought the issue up since the airport’s master plan was due for an update.
The city then solicited proposals for two separate studies: One impact study with an airport and one without. The city canceled those proposals because they couldn’t be compared, since they were being done by different companies.
In December, the city issued a new bid calling for one company to do both analyses. Two companies responded and both will be interviewed and ranked by a committee. At that stage, public officials will discuss how to solicit public input.
Caper said the city wants a clear picture of the airport’s jobs, revenue and taxes, what it costs to keep up infrastructure and how it benefits downtown. Whichever firm is selected will go before the City Council for approval.
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“Could be workforce housing, could be more innovation uses. Maybe it’s just a waterfront park,” he said. “We really want to hear first and foremost from the community. That will inform the scenarios that we study.”
St. Petersburg is credited as being the location of the world’s first commercial flight in 1914, when pilot Tony Jannus ferried then-Mayor A.C. Pheil across the bay to Tampa.
Council member Ed Montanari, a retired commercial pilot, was part of the 2004 Blue Ribbon task force’s 20 members who spent a year studying the airport. Montanari noted the city’s residents overwhelmingly voted the prior year to keep the airport open forever.
“I’m not even on board with doing a study,” he said. “To me, we did the study.”