ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays are expected to announce plans Tuesday for a long-awaited deal to redevelop 86-acres of downtown real estate where the current baseball stadium sits.
The project, estimated to cost at least $1.2 billion, promises to bring a state-of-the-art stadium experience to a fanbase that responded this year to support a team with the best home record in Major League Baseball.
But this deal is about more than baseball. Rather, it presents an opportunity to make good on broken promises that displaced a vibrant, predominantly Black community now-decades ago.
Years before Tropicana Field was built, ushering in a tradition of baseball in Tampa Bay, the site of the dome and its surrounding parking lots was home to hundreds of Black residents.
The neighborhood was known as The Gas Plant district.
The area, which spanned south from First Avenue South to Fifth Avenue South, between Martin Luther King Jr. and 16th streets, first bloomed in the early 20th century when Black families were pulled south for railroad jobs.
By mid-century, the Gas Plant — named for two gas cylinders that jutted from neighborhood’s west side — was a bustling safe haven amid Jim Crow-era segregation.
At its height, the Gas Plant was comprised of more than 500 homes, sprinkled with dozens of businesses and churches. There were scores of working class people, as well as Black dentists and doctors. And the community was home to the first Black elementary school, Davis Elementary, and cultural hubs like the Harlem Theatre.
By the 1970s, talks of redevelopment began as city documents labeled the area “blighted” and a “slum”. By 1979, City Council had taken steps to begin neighborhood revitalization, acquiring residents property through buyouts and eminent domain and ultimately displacing more than 800 Black residents.
At the time, there was no talk of baseball. Instead, officials spoke of strengthening the community with abundant job opportunities and freshened homes. But little materialized.
Instead, in 1986, City Council approved the construction of a stadium that could house a professional team, a move supported by the Times Editorial Board. More than a decade later, in 1998, Major League Baseball debuted at Tropicana Field.
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Now, as the Rays and St. Petersburg move forward with plans to redevelop the site once more, officials — including St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch — have stressed the importance of making good on the unfulfilled promises of the 1970s and keeping an eye on equity.
Developers have pledged to include affordable housing for working families, jobs and cultural offerings for all to enjoy on the site of the new stadium.
But for the many former residents and decedents of the Gas Plant neighborhood, who experienced the harms of a fractured community, promises alone hold little weight.