In some quarters, baseball is getting a bad rap for the demise of the Gas Plant area and the Black neighborhoods of St. Petersburg. I know better. I joined the city staff in 1980 and worked in a series of planning and development jobs for 33 years, and then again for one year as manager of Mayor Rick Kriseman’s “Baseball Forever St. Pete” campaign in 2016-17.
The city’s redevelopment of the Gas Plant Area started long before the city had any ambitions to bring a Major League Baseball team to town. Between 1973 and 1979, several City Councils had repeatedly declared that the Gas Plant area had become a slum and blighted area under Florida law. The city approved a redevelopment plan for the Gas Plant Area more than a year before it was amended in September 1983 for building “a multi-purpose stadium project.”
In the early 1980s, the Pinellas Sports Authority began evaluating potential sites for a major-league stadium in the Gateway area. Those discussions made St. Petersburg city officials nervous that a Gateway stadium and attendant development would drain energy and capital, making it even harder to revitalize downtown St. Petersburg. City officials began to evaluate potential downtown locations, including Albert Whitted Airport and Al Lang Stadium, but turned ultimately to the Gas Plant redevelopment site, where land acquisition was already under way.
The Gas Plant portion of the city plan had originally envisioned new industrial and multi-family residential development on the present-day Tropicana Field site, but in 1983 the city administration and the City Council modified that plan for a proposed new multi-purpose MLB stadium. Significant challenges lay ahead:
♦ The city manager established a “Stadium Management Team” of city staff, with Rick Dodge as its leader and private sector consultants.
♦ The Peoples Gas Company’s adjacent properties had to be acquired.
♦ Stadium designers and architects started work, considering what kind of events could be booked in the new stadium before the city got a Major League Baseball team.
♦ Funding sources and financial plans had to be identified and management responsibilities had to be identified and retained on behalf of the city.
♦ A strategic approach had to be established to pursue a Major League Baseball franchise.
In other words, it may be convenient for some people to say that Major League Baseball and/or the construction of the city’s Tropicana Field project led to the demise of the former Gas Plant Area, but that gets the history backward. The St. Petersburg City Council did not originally decide to redevelop the Gas Plant Area so it could build a Major League Baseball stadium. After nine years of study, the City Council first approved a redevelopment plan that focused on new multi-family housing and light industry buildings that would have provided new homes and prospective new jobs.
More than a year later, the city and county changed plans, decided to build a major-league stadium “on spec,” as the developers would say. Seven years later, the Florida Suncoast Dome hosted its first event, and 15 years after the Gas Plant site was designated for a baseball stadium, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their first game at Tropicana Field. The home team lost, but the game itself was occasion for celebration.
After all the effort, it would be a shame if the Rays and the city ultimately part ways, although some hurdles may be too great to get across. There will be hard discussions about the cost, financing and location of a new stadium — just as there were hard decisions about the construction of Tropicana Field. But there should be no rancor or hard feelings toward Major League Baseball and certainly not toward the Rays about the demolition and redevelopment of the Gas Plant area. That decision, and responsibility for it, still lies with City Hall.
Rick Mussett was the former Senior City Development Administrator and Planning Director for the City of St. Petersburg for 34 years.