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'I say let them go.' St. Petersburg's black community is indifferent to Rays' fate.

The Coalition for Social Justice, part of the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, held a protest outside Tropicana Field on March 31, 1998, before the first Tampa Bay Devil Rays game in history. The protesters demanded social justice and economic development for African-Americans. The Gas Plant district, a historic black area, was bulldozed to build the dome in the late 1980s. But the promises of jobs and economic development that would come with baseball went unfulfilled. Now African-American residents say they are indifferent to the fate of the Rays. [Times files]
Published Jul. 4

ST. PETERSBURG — Traumatized by the failed promises of jobs and economic prosperity, there is one constituency that seems indifferent to whether the Rays stay, leave or split the season with Montreal: the city's African-American community.

"If they stay, good," said Chiefs Creole Cafe owner Elihu Brayboy. "If they leave, that's fine too."

"The black community got bought out many years ago. We don't have (a) say ... how we feel about it doesn't matter."

Maria Scruggs, the president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, called it a bad marriage.

"Why would you force someone to stay in something that they're really not into?" she said.

"I say let them go. It is a second chance and it's finally time for the African-American community to benefit from the redevelopment. We gave up everything — churches, properties, houses — and what happens is there seems to be a total indifference to the (black community)."

Scruggs is referring to the planned redevelopment of Tropicana Field. Whether the Rays stay in St. Petersburg or leave, the Trop will be torn down in the coming decade and the 86-acre footprint will be redeveloped. Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to build the Rays a new stadium as part of that redevelopment, but has said he will not do so for a team that wants to play half its home games in Montreal.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Did the Rays' talks with Montreal violate the Tropicana Field lease?

African-American residents already have an estranged relationship with the city and baseball, ever since black-owned homes, businesses, churches and clubs were bulldozed in the historic Gas Plant district in 1987 to make way for the then-Florida Suncoast Dome. Many residents were bought out and forced to move elsewhere.

The stadium opened on March 3, 1990 at a cost of $138 million, going over its original $85 million budget. But St. Petersburg had no baseball team to play in the dome. In its first year, it lost $9 million.

An expansion team was awarded to the city in 1995. It would be three more years before the Devil Rays played their first official game at the stadium, in March 1998.

Initially, many African-American residents were hopeful and excited about the new stadium after city officials promised it would create jobs and that traffic to games would boost nearby businesses.

But that didn't happen.

Melvin Hall said his business, Connie's Bar-B-Que on 16th Street S, never benefited from the stadium. When the Rays played, he said, it was business as usual.

"I could be in my business and not even know a game was going on until someone would say something," he said. "None of the traffic was directed our way. Our businesses were south of the dome, and all the traffic was going west of the dome and north to get on the interstate.

"Actually it seemed like the St. Pete police were blocking the traffic and preventing it from coming my way."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Three mayors. One owner. No deal. St. Pete's futile history with the Rays.

The only business that truly prospered from the destruction of the Gas Plant district, many residents said, was Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill, which has a prime location on Central Avenue, north of the dome.

The Rays declined to comment for this story. When asked how many jobs the Trop itself has created for the African-American community, the team said it could not provide such demographics.

However, many in the community say that, too, was another broken promise.

"They promised jobs but the only thing you can do in there is sell popcorn," said state Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, whose district includes the city. "How do you make millions of dollars and not one nickel or dime (has rolled) into the impoverished area? We're the ones that suffered the most."

Terri Lipsey Scott, the executive director at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, said city officials "overpromised" how many jobs baseball would bring because it is a seasonal sport and the regular season only lasts six months.

"You're not looking at full-time job opportunities," she said, "and those seasonal opportunities did not afford (employees) full-time opportunities or the benefits that come with it."

Now residents are looking ahead to the Trop redevelopment project. The Rays lease ends in 2027, and the city needs to know where the team will play after that so it can finalize its plans for the area.

Whatever the Rays' fate, residents and city officials say this time the redevelopment must benefit the community.

"Because of the price that was paid to bring baseball here, (the redevelopment) has to recognize the history of that community, the Gas Plant area, and what was promised," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who has said he will run for mayor in 2021.

"It also has to fulfill the promise of jobs (and) economic development, which includes housing. So that should be the focus going forward."

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said those goals will be at the forefront of whatever redevelopment plan they choose.

"There's definitely a specific obligation to acknowledge the role that the site has played in the historic disenfranchisement of African Americans," she said.

In 2016, the city held meetings with African-American neighborhoods and groups to help shape the redevelopment. There are two master plans: One scenario includes a baseball stadium to replace the Trop; the other does not.

Whoever takes over as mayor in 2021, Tomalin said, that obligation is non-negotiable.

"The 'how' will be determined by whoever is in leadership, but there's no question that's a prerequisite," she said. "The sincerity and diligence of the effort by which to do the right thing by the people of St. Petersburg, will ideally serve the goal."

Editor's note: A quote from the deputy mayor has been updated.

Contact Monique Welch at mwelch@tampabay.com or Follow mo_unique_.

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