Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Albert Whitted Airport as private. It is owned by the city.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch spent his first year in office resetting projects that were underway: A new city office building to include affordable housing, a municipal marina much in need of upgrades, a plan to build a Moffitt Cancer Center and, most notably, the redevelopment of Tropicana Field and its parking.
Now, two years into his five-year term (since voters opted to move elections to even-numbered years), the Welch administration’s main focus is on negotiating and drafting agreements with the Tampa Bay Rays and their development partner Hines to redevelop the Trop into the Historic Gas Plant District. The timetable is to have legally binding documents for the City Council to vote on by April.
The 2025 budget already has $1 million in contingency for the Historic Gas Plant’s operational costs. The project would get started with a majority vote, or it’s back to the drawing board.
That’s the primary target for city staff, said city administrator Rob Gerdes. So how does that impact other projects around the city that have been reset or put on hold?
“Honestly, at the margins,” he said. “There may be short delays from a staffing perspective and other projects, but really not significant. I think we’re continuing to move the ball forward on other projects.”
Welch gives his State of the City address at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg. As a primer, here’s a list of city projects and their current status.
Next month marks seven years since southern St. Petersburg’s only grocery store closed and the area became a food desert. The city says it’s working on final drafts of a lease option with Sugar Hill Group — a different outfit than the similarly named group that competed to redevelop Tropicana Field — to bring a grocer to a space a quarter of the size and build affordable housing there, too.
Those documents weren’t available for review Thursday during an update given to a City Council committee, frustrating council members who have been upset with the lack of progress in a process that’s been going on since May 2022. Two members said they don’t like the deal so far.
The 75-year ground lease would allow Sugar Hill Group to seek state funding to build affordable housing. A city official said Walmart is interested in terminating the lease they have on the grocery space before it’s up in 2027, so Sugar Hill could start demolishing.
A new appraisal is expected to be done within the next six weeks. Two appraisals from 2018 valued the property at $2.6 million. The lease with Sugar Hill has an option to buy the property for $1.5 million. The city said it is not considering former City Council member and mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon’s unsolicited offer to purchase the property for $1.6 million because the current proposal creates affordable housing.
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Port St. Pete
Economic and Workforce Development director Brian Caper said Thursday that the city would like to launch a 12-month master planning effort for an innovation district and port hub site pending council approval in February or March. He said the city has had discussions with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and expansion could attract them as a tenant.
Municipal Services Center
Since Welch called off former Mayor Rick Kriseman’s plan to build a new city office building with affordable housing in the parking lot across from City Hall, there are no new plans for a new Municipal Services Center anytime soon.
City Development administrator James Corbett said the city recently had Harvard Jolly Architecture conduct an assessment of the current downtown building and found “nothing critical” structurally. He said the city will likely pay for repairs over the next 10 to 15 years, including the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
Gerdes said toward the end of Welch’s first term and into his second term, if there is one, the city would begin planning phases for a new building. An approved round of Penny for Pinellas funding would help, he said.
One of the last standing landmarks of the Deuces, the Manhattan Casino event space on 22nd Street South, has been closed for more than a year. Agreements between the city and third-party operators haven’t worked out, so it will be city-run, like the Coliseum and Sunken Gardens.
Corbett said the elevator has been brought into compliance and there are plans to renovate, but a new air conditioning system is needed before reopening the building to the public. At the earliest, the space would be ready by late 2024.
Gerdes said the administration will have an increased focus on the Deuces, especially with the City Council’s recent split approval on 24 townhomes that cost beyond $19 million. The city also owns the nearby property once home to the Merriwether building and land planned for a new Woodson African American Museum of Florida that would become available if the Gas Plant project, which includes a home for the Woodson, is a go.
“I would anticipate a lot of focus on 22nd Street over the next three years of the mayor’s administration,” Gerdes said.
The Science Center in west St. Petersburg, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics hub for students that opened in 1959 and closed in 2014, is making a comeback. The city is ready to sell the property to the St. Petersburg Group for an agreed-upon price of $1.6 million. But the buyer needs to clear some hurdles to receive a $3 million Housing and Urban Development grant first, Corbett said.
Co-founder Joe Hamilton said his group is about two months from getting through HUD’s checklist. Hamilton gave no timeline as to when the Science Center will be ready for its grand opening.
Albert Whitted Airport
One of the first things Welch did as mayor was announce a priority that hadn’t come up on the campaign trail: He wants to look at other uses for Albert Whitted Airport, a municipal airport that takes up 120 acres of the downtown waterfront. It is considered the birthplace of commercial aviation, as the world’s first commercial flight took off near there to Tampa.
Securing funding to study the best future use of the airport may be an uphill battle. In November, the council voted 4-3 to take $300,000 set aside for the Albert Whitted Economic Impact and spend it instead on an urban tree planting program. An evaluation committee last April selected HR&A Advisors to study the airport, but that proposal won’t come up for approval until summer.
City officials recently said they’re going with Safe Harbor Marina’s proposal to renovate the marina after an analysis found that was the best option over the proposal submitted by SunTex, or having the city take care of the work itself.
A contract is expected to come before the council for approval by this spring.
800 First Ave. S.
The city-owned plot of land once planned for a Moffitt Cancer Center sits vacant after Welch nixed that project. Though the city received unsolicited proposals for the 4.56-acre plot, the property in the short term will be used as a parking and staging area for Historic Gas Plant redevelopment, if approved.
After that, the city would develop the land for affordable housing or sell the land at market rate and put the proceeds toward affordable housing. Gerdes said the city could not speculate if the land would be sold to the Rays and Hines as part of the Gas Plant project.
As for the UPC site across the street on Second Avenue South, the city has an agreed-upon price for $10 million with Third Lake Partners but it is not under contract.