Like any good storyteller, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch kept his audience for his annual State of the City speech in suspense. The wait, though, was worth it.
The mayor rattled off a list of accomplishments from his first year in office, thanked many hardworking city employees and extolled the power of community partnerships. Finally, after about 30 minutes, he delivered the big news: He had chosen the team led by the Tampa Bay Rays to redevelop the Historic Gas Plant District. It was the biggest decision he has made as mayor. It might end up being the most important decision he makes for as long as he remains in City Hall. And given the circumstances, it was the best way forward, the one most likely to deliver on the huge promise offered by redeveloping the 86-acre site.
Very few American cities have an opportunity to transform such a huge property so close to the heart of downtown. The multibillion dollar price tag will make it one of the largest commercial construction projects in the country once it gets underway. During the segregation era, the site was home to a thriving Black community. Today, the domed stadium where the Rays play games dominates the property.
The city could have chosen a different way to redevelop the land. By setting some basic parameters — including a vision to honor the site’s history, requiring enough park space and sprucing up Booker Creek — the city could have sold the site off in much smaller parcels to maximize the sales price. The site would have grown more organically, with less government involvement.
But the mayor — and the mayor before him — wanted to be more hands-on. Welch included 23 “guiding principles” for the site from requiring child care facilities to addressing intentional equity, which included hiring Black- and women-owned businesses and contractors to help build the project. Four development teams submitted bids. Of those, the one led by the Rays and its development partner Hines stood out for its comprehensive and realistic vision. Rays/Hines, for instance, struck a solid balance between how much affordable vs. market-rate housing to build on the site. Welch’s selection of Rays/Hines puts the city on the right path. But now the hard work begins.
They call them “proposals” for a reason — the details are not set in stone. That’s what comes next. The Rays/Hines proposal included broad outlines for housing, conference, retail and office space, a new Woodson African American Museum of Florida and, of course, a baseball stadium. Now, Welch and the city negotiate with Rays/Hines over the details, including the financials. The process can take months and will eventually require a vote from City Council, likely late this year or early next year. For Welch, it will also mean selling the idea to the city’s residents, including the many supporters who wanted him to select Sugar Hill Community Partners, the development team led by former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. The road to inking a deal will be long and full of bumps. It will take a skilled, motivated and relentless mayor to get all the factions on board while also ensuring the project honors the site’s painful history and becomes an economic engine that drives the city forward for decades.
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Welch has taken a positive step by choosing by far the best of the four proposals. Partnering with the Rays also creates the best chance of keeping the baseball team in St. Petersburg for decades to come. Does the mayor have the political and negotiating skills to maintain the momentum? We are about to find out.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.