Mayor Ken Welch’s ‘full circle’ story to keep Rays in St. Petersburg

Welch’s family history is central to how the mayor helped broker a deal that fulfills broken promises.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch is pictured ahead of his ceremonial pitch for Tampa Bay Rays' game against the Los Angeles Angels at Tropicana Field on Wednesday.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch is pictured ahead of his ceremonial pitch for Tampa Bay Rays' game against the Los Angeles Angels at Tropicana Field on Wednesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sept. 27|Updated Sept. 28

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Ken Welch was thinking about people like his father when he said last week that a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays will achieve what past city leaders had hoped would happen.

David Welch was the St. Petersburg City Council’s only Black member in 1982 when the idea was first raised to use the city’s Gas Plant property as a site for major league baseball. The few remaining Black-owned residences, businesses and churches that hadn’t already been demolished for earlier redevelopment efforts would be razed later. A news account said his voice was “rising and barely under control” as he spoke about promises made in writing to the community about creating jobs and industry, building affordable housing and refurbishing what would be left of the neighborhood.

David Welch’s quote from that day is in many stories and books about Tropicana Field: “You have a moral obligation to those individuals who were moved out for what you have told them.”

His son, who became St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor, announced a deal on Sept. 19 that he says would finally accomplish what his father had hoped to see happen.

“He made sure that everyone knew that until he passed away,” Ken Welch said Monday. “I never forgot that fight. I never forgot those promises.”

The news of the deal to build a new ballpark in time for the 2028 season and surround it with housing, retail, cultural venues, a hotel and office space came nearly 10 years to the day after David Welch’s death.

Welch has gone further than any mayor on either side of Tampa Bay to get the Rays to commit to staying and build a new stadium, a resolution many thought they’d never see. Descendants of the Gas Plant who were at the Trop for last week’s celebration witnessed something else they hadn’t heard before from a leader of their city.

Basha Jordan, grandson of Elder Jordan, the formerly enslaved man who built the Manhattan Casino and once owned the land that is beneath the baseball diamond today, stopped Welch to let him know.

“You said, finally, the Black community is getting what was promised to them,” Jordan told him. “You did say Black people and you didn’t stutter.”

Timing, team and relationships

The mayor will tell you it’s not just his handiwork. The bulk of it is timing.

St. Petersburg today is not what it was in 2007, when the Rays wanted a waterfront stadium shaded by a sail at Al Lang Stadium. The city exploded with growth during the pandemic, attracting new residents, positioning itself as a viable destination.

It helps that the Rays this year saw a 30% increase in attendance. Now 25 years old with a generational following, the franchise has deepened its ties in the community.

Relationships played a role. Rays co-president Brian Auld said it wasn’t until Welch last summer reset a bidding process that had previously excluded the team that the Rays “started thinking of St. Petersburg even as a real possibility.”

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“All of those relationships in a place like St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, where we all really do know each other and run into each other on the street, it’s so important,” said Auld. “And without it, I don’t know if we’d be having such happy discussions right now.”

It helped that Welch’s last job was serving on the Pinellas County Commission, where he spent 20 years. County Administrator Barry Burton said Welch sat down with each commissioner to help build consensus. “Sometimes it’s that personal touch that makes a difference,” Burton said.

City Council members say, meanwhile, that their 2021 resolution that no deal could be done without making the Rays a priority also changed the tide, a move Welch supported.

“This administration has put open communication with both the Rays and with City Council at the top of the priority list,” said council member Gina Driscoll.And I think that has made all the difference in the world.”

What’s different

The deal on the table not only would settle the issue of where the Rays will play baseball. It also comes with more community benefits than proposed when the Rays initially submitted their plan.

Under Welch’s direction, City Administrator Rob Gerdes got the Rays and their development partner Hines to agree to 341 more affordable housing units for a total of 1,200, a 40% increase from the original plan.

There may now be 600 units on-site, including 100 designated for seniors — possibly for displaced Gas Plant residents. Welch says his staff has to ensure that it is in compliance with fair housing requirements.

The mayor said conversations began with expectations and boundaries. For starters, there would be no increase in taxes.

“We were prepared not to have a deal,” Welch said. “If the price was too high or we couldn’t get certain levels of housing or commitment to minority contracting or some of the other things, we didn’t have to have a deal because all that property would come back to the city in 2027.

“It was not that we were trying to reach a deal at any cost.”

Full circle

Gwendolyn Reese is excited to be alive to see it happen: A major city-led development focused on equity.

Reese, a historian and president of the African American Heritage Association, helped put together the Rays proposal. She also lived in the Gas Plant in her youth.

“This is full circle for a lot of people,” such as Basha Jordan, Reese said. “It’s for the mayor, but it’s for so many other residents in the city who once lived or were descendants of those who lived in the Gas Plant. The circle had been broken, and now we see the full circle.”

Pastor Clarence Williams of Greater Mt. Zion AME Church was among a group of clergy who wanted Sugar Hill Community Partners to get the job — not the Rays partnership. Now, he is calling for consensus to get behind the mayor’s plan.

“Mayors have not been able to do what he’s done so far,” he said.

Not everyone is fully convinced. Bishop Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church is against selling the bulk of the land to the Rays partnership — a position shared by some City Council members. He said the increase in affordable housing doesn’t justify the deal.

Welch has said the project can’t cure all of the city’s ills, nor is it intended to do so. But it could help.

“I’m not sure you’d be able to have this kind of impactful project but for the fact that you’ve got those 60 acres that were taken from a community,” he said. Forty years later, it could be the genesis for economic growth for that same community.

“You really couldn’t make up a story like that.”

Staff writer Jay Cridlin contributed to this report.