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Ken Welch says St. Petersburg is still the 'best place' for the Rays

exterior of Tropicana Field
Daylina Miller
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WUSF Public Media
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch is expected to decide this week on a redevelopment plan for the Tropicana Field site. He grew up in the Gas Plant district, which was bulldozed in the 1980s to make way for the stadium that is now home to the Tampa Bay Rays.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch says that while he wants the Rays to be part of the new development, he's more focused on the need for affordable housing and the surrounding community.

UPDATE: St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch scheduled to make a "major announcement" on the Tropicana Field redevelopment on June 29.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch is expected to decide this week on a redevelopment plan for the Tropicana Field site. He grew up in the Gas Plant district, which was bulldozed in the 1980s to make way for the stadium that is now home to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Welch told WUSF's Matthew Peddie that while he wants the Rays to be part of the new development, he's more focused on the need for affordable housing and the surrounding community.

Welch: The Rays are important. But they're not the most important part of this development. This is a generational development. There aren't 86 acres like this anywhere in Pinellas County, probably in the state of Florida. It’s my focus and what I ran on. And so what no one should be surprised about this is that we have equitable development, that benefits the entire community and pays respect to the sacrifice that was made by an entire community who lived there, because of redlining.

So they made that a community — every level of wealth and income was represented in the Gas Plant, and it was a true community. And going forward, that's my focus.

I believe the Rays can be a part of that. I believe Tropicana Field will be an excellent location for the Rays and a new stadium that fits what's happening in St. Pete right now. And I think we're going to have success moving forward. And I do plan to have a significant announcement about our path forward before June 30.

Two men talk in an office. One is in front of a laptop and the other is talking into a microphone.
Dinorah Prevost
/
WUSF Public Media
WUSF's Matthew Peddie (left) talking with St. Pete mayor Ken Welch in Welch's office.

With the Tampa Bay Rays, do you want to keep them in St. Petersburg?

Absolutely, they should stay in St. Petersburg. So much has been sacrificed to get them here. And I think they understand.

But beyond that, you know, the baseball model is changed. I don't think you have to have 30,000 people a night to be profitable. And particularly with our television market. And the way people are watching baseball, on some of their devices, there are just different ways to do it.

So I think, as St. Pete continues to expand our downtown, and as you see that connection of what's happening downtown moving westward already, and that connects with a new baseball complex that is part of a vibrant downtown. I think attendance will increase. I think it'll be a way that folks could spend an entire day in the community and then actually walk out and spend dollars elsewhere in the community. It doesn't happen now at the Trop, simply because of its design. And I think as we improve our transportation connections around Tampa Bay — like the BRT (bus rapid transit), like the new Howard Frankland (Bridge) — that you can see being constructed right now that has not only a dedicated lane for BRT on it, but also has the underpinning to support light rail, I should just say to for our listeners, bus rapid transit is effectively, you have a route that's dedicated to the bus. So there's a there's less kind of traffic interference and makes fewer stops.

So transportation and getting to the new ballfield will be better. And that's why I believe that's the best place for a new Rays ballfield that combined with our revenue base with the county — we've got much larger capacity in terms of bed tax, that visitors pay when they spend the night here than Hillsborough County does. And the county’s a partner with us on this.

What are you not willing to give up or compromise in order to keep the Rays on this side of the bay?

The vision for what the Gas Plant is, and what it means, is that land is not owned by baseball, baseball can be a part of the vision going forward, but it does not dominate the vision going forward.

So it could still be a stadium in that site, in your view.

Yes. And it's a portion of the site. But the vision for that entire 86 acres has to be St. Pete's vision, and it has to be an inclusive vision for the entire community. It's not what we need to do to keep baseball here.

What do you think of Tampa’s attempt to woo the Rays to Tampa?

I know (Tampa Mayor) Jane Castor is going to give it her best shot. We're going to give it our best shot. But St. Pete is a different city than it was when I was growing up 30 years ago. We are going to make progress, no matter where the Rays end up playing. I still believe St. Pete’s the best place for them to move forward.

Updated: June 28, 2022 at 2:48 PM EDT
This story has been updated with St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch scheduled to make a "major announcement" on the Tropicana Field redevelopment on June 29.
I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.