ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Ken Welch made the biggest decision of his political career on Monday, selecting the Tampa Bay Rays-led team to redevelop Tropicana Field.
With the selection, Welch sought to remake history, trying to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg after threats to leave the team, repay the majority black community that was plowed for a stadium, and woo baseball by building a new neighborhood that creates jobs and provides affordable housing.
“The process was detailed and transparent, and as your mayor, I did my homework.” said Welch. “I am fully convinced that this decision is the best way forward for our city.
“We are engaged and hope to get married very soon,” the mayor told a news conference after the announcement.
Welch made the announcement at the end of his highly anticipated State of the City address on Monday morning. Next, the 40-piece marching band from her alma mater, Lakewood High School, played Cheryl Lynn’s 1978 hit “Got to be Real.”
The Rays made their pitch as part of a joint proposal to build a new, modern 30,000-seat ballpark closer to the northeast portion of the Tropicana Field site and develop the area’s 86 acres with the international real estate investment and development group Hines. In addition to a stadium, they propose to build a seniors’ residence, 40,000 square feet of conference space as part of the ballpark, and a new Woodson African American Museum of Florida at the entrance to the development on Booker. Creek. The team would also donate $10 million to the museum and build affordable housing elsewhere in the city.
The stadium would be funded separately. The Hines/Rays proposal offered the most money to the city for development rights with an aggressive schedule that would secure a new ballpark by the 2028 home opener. He puts the land’s current value at $97 million, more than other bidders.
Welch said his decision was a matter of certainty. He pointed to Hines’ track record and financial ability — and his own personal history of working with the Rays as county commissioner and mayor.
“It’s really the safe bet,” he said. “And so it wasn’t really difficult.”
While Welch’s decision paints a brighter future for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg, with terms that would allow the Rays to play at home there to be set out in a separate agreement.
This user agreement is expected to come with a terms sheet this summer. In the meantime, the Rays could continue to look for other places.
“I don’t see that happening,” Welch said during his press conference. “They did their research. They’ve put together a hell of a team, a hell of a plan.
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Rays president Brian Auld, Hines senior general manager Michael Harrison and spokeswoman Rafaela Amador were present when Welch made his announcement.
“He feels good. It’s great,” Auld said. And trust us, moving forward means the world to us.
During a press conference held Monday by the Rays at Tropicana Field, Auld said the team is “fully engaged” with St. Petersburg, but said the Rays are “continuing the dialogue” with Tampa and County of Hillsborough.
“We will need to see votes happen. We will need to see funds allocated and we will need more handshakes and celebrations,” Auld later told a reporter. “For me, it will be when there is a shovel in the ground. And I hope that will happen as soon as possible.
Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said Welch’s decision was “the only clear chance St. Pete has to keep the team.”
“I guess we’re over the clock,” he said. “We will be ready to negotiate (with the Rays) when the time is right.”
Michael Harrison, Hines’ senior general manager, said without the Rays, the redevelopment would be a “very different project.”
“When you don’t have the type of anchor tenant that the Rays represent for this project and all that comes with it in terms of adjacent business,” he said. “The site plan and the master plan should be reviewed.”
The Rays have been calling for the construction of a new stadium for 15 years, first proposing an outdoor venue with a sail-shaped roof on the St Petersburg waterfront. They have since appeared to focus on Tampa, saying a location more central to the area’s population would draw larger crowds for a team that consistently ranks near the bottom in attendance.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor repeated a line she often uses, that her main goal was to make sure the team stays in the area, while nodding to the recurring nature of the past negotiations.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” she said. “Tampa remains a great option for the team and we are keeping our door open and sharp for due diligence on any potential Rays stadium proposal in Tampa.”
Welch passed on three other groups of developers, including what he acknowledged to be the Rays’ main competitor: Sugar Hill Community Partners. The group, led by San Francisco-based JMA Ventures, had spent the past two years rallying community support, including among black pastors. The Sugar Hill team has promised that half of its residential units will be for affordable, workforce housing.
Sugar Hill was a finalist in the previous redevelopment bidding contest under former mayor Rick Kriseman.
“We would like to thank our team members and friends who have worked tirelessly on this lawsuit for over two years, and the residents of St. Pete who have always been so generous with their time and feedback,” Sugar Hill said in a statement. “We have great affection for the community of St. Pete and hope that the true promise of the Gasworks Historic District site will finally be realized.”
Two other bidders, Miami’s 50 Plus 1 Sports, committed to using minority-owned businesses, and Tampa-based Restoration Associates, backed by local doctor and philanthropist Kiran Patel, also submitted bids. City staff and an independent consultant said their plans lacked detail and proven financial capacity to complete the work.
Monday’s event was open to the public. A city spokesperson said nominators would not know in advance who was selected. Sugar Hill representatives, including director of development David Carlock, were also in the crowd when Welch shared his decision.
Welch’s first year in office was centered around him tossing out the offers and selection made by his predecessor, then scouting for new proposals. He said he felt previous deals didn’t do enough to address the city’s affordable housing crisis and racial economic disparities.
He said he was also looking to honoring the historically Black Gas Plant community razed to make way for a stadium decades ago.
Welch campaigned on a platform of racial equity and made good on broken promises made to black residents. With bleachers set up and performances marking his speech outside City Hall, the marching band made up for a public inauguration he missed because he caught COVID-19 last January.
Hours after Welch’s speech, Faith in Florida, a social and environmental justice organization, held a press conference to pressure the city to retain ownership of the land. About 15 protesters held signs reading “Don’t Oversell” and “St. Pete is not for sale.
Speakers at the protest argued that keeping the land public is the only way to ensure it will be used for the public good, including truly affordable housing. City council member Richie Floyd compared it to the city’s recreation centers, libraries and parks – “the things that make our city worth living” – and urged residents to mobilize in favor of public ownership.
Welch’s announcement is just the start of a year-long process that will include detailed negotiations, city council votes and public comment. City officials said they hoped to negotiate a deal with the Rays that would keep them at Tropicana Field for years before committing to a larger development deal.