Some vexing questions about the plans to redevelop the Tropicana Field site | Column
All four proposals have the same fundamental problems seen in earlier iterations, writes guest columnist Tom Mullins.
A rendering of 50 Plus 1 Sports' plan to redevelop St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field as the Historic Gas Plant District. 50 Plus 1 Sports in one of the four development groups vying for the job.
A rendering of 50 Plus 1 Sports' plan to redevelop St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field as the Historic Gas Plant District. 50 Plus 1 Sports in one of the four development groups vying for the job. [ 50 Plus 1 Sports ]
Published Dec. 29, 2022|Updated Jan. 3

On Jan. 4, the city of St. Petersburg has organized a public event where the community can hear presentations from each of the four groups competing to become the master developer of the Historic Gas Plant property, a remarkable 86-acre parcel of land adjacent to trendy walkable neighborhoods, which today contains Tropicana Field. If you go to the Jan. 4 event, you’ll find all four developers’ proposals to be thorough and creative, which is helpful when you are trying to persuade local politicians to gift you $700 million worth of prime taxpayer-owned land for pennies on the dollar. If you are the type of person who goes to civic events like this and enjoys asking vexatious questions, you may find the following to be useful preparation.

Tom Mullins
Tom Mullins [ Tom Mullins ]

All four proposals have the same fundamental problems seen in proposals solicited by previous St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. First, they’re bad deals for us citizens who are the ultimate owners of the property. None of the four developers offer to pay money for the Gas Plant property anywhere close to what the city could realize if the city itself conducted an orderly lot by lot sale of the property and gave new owners reasonable freedom to develop their lots, risking their own money and acting on their own visions of what would be useful for the community. This is precisely how St. Pete ended up with such diverse and authentic neighborhoods as Grand Central, EDGE, Beach Drive and others – by avoiding the risk and artifice of massive, centrally planned development schemes.

None of the four groups have the more than $3 billion needed to construct their projects, instead simply offering the names of brokers and middlemen they will employ to search for the needed money on a best-efforts basis.

None of the four concepts brings a jobs engine beyond the temporary construction jobs. If they get the money, developers will indeed build the physical space for stores, offices and hotels, but the city can do nothing beyond wishing and hoping that the non-residential space will ultimately get filled with viable employers. If it bothered you to see such a well-located small development like The Mall at Sundial struggle to keep its space filled, imagine a Gas Plant mixed-use area with 10 times as much space to fill.

One of the four proposals is from the Rays baseball team, which has seen lousy game attendance at Tropicana Field for over 20 years. The current Tropicana Field lease gives the Rays some real power to delay or interfere with the redevelopment of the Gas Plant parcel, so the team’s proposal could be more of a tactical move to optimize their economics rather than a sincere interest in keeping the team in downtown St. Petersburg. On the other hand, maybe the Rays are serious. By expropriating the 86 acres from the taxpayers for next to nothing, the Rays’ group does have a sporting chance of making over $1 billion in profit from selling their planned 5,700 on-site apartments and 2 million-plus square feet of hotel, office and commercial space, which is a home run even for individuals as wealthy as the Rays’ team owners.

All four developers feature meaningful doses of affordable housing in their proposals, in an obvious nod to one of Mayor Ken Welch’s known preferences. This is problematic. Affordable housing should start with smart land selection decisions. Recent land transactions in downtown near the Gas Plant property have seen prices of $20 million per acre or more. However, just a few blocks away to the south or west or northwest, property for affordable housing can be obtained for $1 million to $4 million per acre. If the city is sincere about wanting to maximize access to affordable housing, it would be smarter to sell some of the Gas Plant property at market prices and use those resources to give a much larger number of people access to affordable housing in nearby blocks.

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For the Gas Plant site, neither Kriseman nor Welch have thoroughly explained why they are so fixated on using a “master developer” at all, and why they feel it is necessary to hand over to that developer land worth hundreds of millions of dollars for essentially nothing. The amount of value we are talking about is huge. For example, if the city sold the land lot by lot and realized $700 million, the city could afford to waive all its property taxes for at least three to four years. To allocate this much value through a political process, rather than a competitive market process — and using that political process to potentially flow enormous amounts of money to allies of Mayor Welch — creates bad optics and all kinds of temptations towards official misbehavior.

Many of the elements seen in the four proposals have been specially required and justified by the city to redress “broken promises” – the broken promises of jobs and economic opportunity made by politicians to residents of historically Black neighborhoods in St. Pete. In the 1960s and 1970s, those folks saw their high-functioning communities literally bulldozed for the construction of interstate highway branches, with the remainder bulldozed for what eventually became Tropicana Field in the 1980s. The broken promises narrative informs every decision related to redevelopment of the Gas Plant property, and the narrative has been accepted so far without any real scrutiny. However (and this is the part that must never be mentioned aloud), the private sector and local non-governmental organizations stepped in and clearly over-delivered across the Tampa Bay area on the promises that the politicians and early baseball promoters could not keep. Since the 1980s, there has been remarkable employment growth in the area’s health care, financial services, technology, construction, hospitality and nonprofit sectors. Small local companies like Tech Data, Jabil, WellCare, Raymond James, Outback, Sykes and others grew exponentially into global businesses. Tens of thousands of good jobs were created, and residents of all parts of St. Petersburg were the beneficiaries, no doubt including thousands of South St. Pete residents over that timeframe.

There is a lesson in here for those with power over the Gas Plant redevelopment decision: the private sector and non-government organizations are the real engines of economic opportunity for disadvantaged persons, not grandiose government-led projects. The city government should set the broad ground rules and zoning for the Gas Plant redevelopment, lead the creation of public use areas and infrastructure, then sell the land in an orderly manner and get the best deal for taxpayers. Then get out of the way. The citizens of St. Pete will do the rest.

Tom Mullins is a former Raymond James investment banker and was a St. Petersburg City Council candidate in 2021.