Using the analogy of an accepted marriage proposal, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch on Monday announced he has chosen the Tampa Bay Rays and their Houston-based development partner, Hines, to remake the 86-acre Tropicana Field site in downtown St. Pete.
The property is also known as the Historic Gas Plant District because of the thriving Black community that was razed to make way for the baseball stadium, and along with keeping the Rays in St. Pete, socioeconomic equity was a key consideration for Welch, who grew up in the Gas Plant District and witnessed firsthand the displacement of Black residents and business.
“We are engaged today and are moving toward a wedding,” Welch said in a news conference following his State of the City address at St. Pete City Hall, adding that he expects the Rays’ flirtations with Tampa to end immediately now that the team has been selected to handle a transformational development project that is expected to have a construction value of $4 billion. “I don't expect those conversations to proceed with Tampa unless our engagement breaks up for some reason.”
If you’re experiencing a sense of déjà vu, that’s to be expected. Prior to leaving office, former St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman chose a developer, Miami-based Midtown Development, to lead the Trop makeover. But about six months into his term, Welch announced that he’d decided to restart the request for proposal process and threw out the bids from Midtown and another finalist, Sugar Hill Community Partners, led by former NBA star and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. Midtown responded by saying it would not submit a second bid, while Sugar Hill opted to take another swing.
In addition to Rays/Hines, proposals were also received from Restoration Associates and 50 Plus 1 Sports, but Sugar Hill and Rays/Hines were viewed as the most likely to be chosen.
“This has been a complex decision, with two particularly strong proposals from capable teams," Welch said during his State of the City remarks. "We have received input and feedback from diverse groups and individuals, and we have received staff and consultant analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of the proposals. The process was detailed and transparent, and as your mayor, I have done my homework. I am confident that this decision is the best path forward, and I am excited to announce that the city’s partner for progress in the development of the Historic Gas Plant District is Hines and Tampa Bay Rays.”
Welch’s decision is a sizeable blow to Sugar Hill, whose team members spent about two years in St. Pete, meeting with residents and stakeholders so they could put their best foot forward.
“We want to thank our team members and friends who have worked tirelessly on this pursuit for more than two years, as well as the residents of St. Pete who have been so consistently generous with their time and feedback,” Sugar Hill Community Partners said in a statement issued soon after Welch’s announcement. “We have great affection for the St. Pete community and hope that the true promise of the Historic Gas Plant District site is finally realized.”
Welch, at his news conference, praised the Sugar Hill team, saying: “Sugar Hill has done a lot of work in the community for a couple of years; I give them high marks for that. But we’ve got a known entity, in the Rays, that has been here, and we want to keep the Rays here."
The Rays/Hines proposal, which Welch described as “the safe bet,” calls for less on-site affordable housing than Sugar Hill’s, but it pledges resources to develop additional affordable units elsewhere in the city. Welch also found the Rays/Hines plan to be fiscally sound and viable.
“One of the reasons I selected Rays/Hines is because of their financial capability,” Welch said. “They brought in a strong financial package, $1.8 billion in equity, which is substantial. That will have a great impact in terms of future property taxes, employment, all those economic benefits.”
Welch, who spent 20 years as a Pinellas County commissioner before becoming mayor, also expressed confidence that county officials will support the Rays/Hines proposal. Pinellas County’s well-stocked coffers of tourist development taxes, also known as bed taxes, will be essential to getting a new Rays stadium built.
“The city has stepped up,” Welch said, “and I believe the county will step up to invest in this.”
The mayor also addressed comments from Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, who has publicly indicated support for Tampa, not St. Pete, as the Rays’ future home.
“I’ve spoken with (Manfred) personally, and I’ve spoken with the Rays,” Welch said. “They want to be next to a vibrant downtown. One of the partners with Hines and Rays is Populous, and they’ve done this type of ballpark. It’s not just for a ballgame; it’s a destination. That’s the way we’re viewing it, and I believe we’ll have Major League Baseball’s support.”
Brian Hartz holds a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and has been a St. Petersburg resident since 2013. He has also worked for newspapers and magazines in Indiana, Canada and New Zealand.