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St. Petersburg’s first black mayor to consider rough $1.3 billion plan to repair demolition of historic gasworks district

The future of the Tampa Bay Rays is about to become clearer as local officials begin public discussions on a $1.3 billion project that would be the anchor of a much larger project aimed to transform downtown St. Petersburg with affordable housing and a black history museum. , a hotel and offices and commercial spaces.

The St. Petersburg City Council will begin a detailed review Thursday of development company Rays and Hines’ plans for what the city calls the historic gas plant project. The name is a nod to the 86-acre (34-hectare) land’s history as a once-prosperous black community, demolished for the Rays’ current domed Tropicana Field and earlier for a spur of interstate highway.

Mayor Ken Welch is St. Petersburg’s first black mayor, and his family has roots in the Gas Plant District when the city was racially segregated. He said it’s important to keep the Rays in the area and restore promises of economic opportunity never fulfilled for minority residents after businesses and families were driven out decades ago.

“I see this as a real opportunity to lift up the entire city,” Welch, a Democrat, said in an interview at City Hall. “It’s not just a stadium. This is a stadium surrounded by the largest development in the state of Florida, if not the country.

The plan would end years of uncertainty over the Rays’ future, including possible moves across the bay to Tampa; Nashville, Tenn.; and even an idea to share home games between St. Petersburg and Montreal. The Rays typically have among the lowest attendance numbers in MLB, even though the team has made the playoffs five years in a row.

The proposed 30,000-seat stadium, which would open for the 2028 season, is a priority in the first phase of what will ultimately be a $6.5 billion project. Thursday’s city council meeting will focus on other aspects of the plan, with a May 23 meeting set at the stadium itself. Final votes are expected in June or July; the Pinellas County Commission must also vote on the project.

According to the Rays, the first phase will begin next spring with the ballpark and will initially include 1,500 residential units, 500 hotel rooms, office and medical space, a new Woodson Florida African American Museum, as well as entertainment , conferences, ballroom and meeting spaces. The plan also calls for an expanse of open space, including around a nearby creek, as well as work on an abandoned black cemetery near the site.

The plan has received strong support from Tampa Bay business and charity leaders, as well as organizations ranging from the NHL’s Lightning to St. Pete Pride, an LGBTQ+ group. Many local black leaders are also in favor, according to letters of support they sent to the council.

Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association, once lived in the Gas Plant neighborhood. She said people like her and descendants of previous residents feel “vindicated” by the inclusive nature of the overall project. The local branch of the NAACP also endorsed it.

“People abandoned their neighborhoods for a better way of life, and none of that happened,” Reese said. “It was like a stone in the hearts of many people in our community. This is a tremendous opportunity for the city to move forward.

The Rays’ ballpark is part of a wave of construction or renovation of sports venues across the country, including the Milwaukee Brewers, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and Oakland Athletics, which are considering a move to Las Vegas. Like the Rays, all projects benefit from millions of dollars in public funding that typically draws opposition.

The Rays’ financing plan calls for the city to spend $417.5 million, including $287.5 million for the stadium itself and $130 million on infrastructure for the larger redevelopment project that would include elements such such as sewage, traffic lights and roads. The city is not considering new taxes or tax increases.

Pinellas County, meanwhile, would spend about $312.5 million for its share of the approximate costs. Officials say the county’s money will come from a bed tax that is largely funded by visitors and can only be spent on tourism and economic development-related expenses.

The Rays and Hines will be responsible for the stadium’s remaining costs — about $600 million — and any cost overruns during construction. The team would have naming rights to the stadium, which could reach $10 million per year.

Critics in the Tampa Bay area, including a group called No Home Run, argue that the Rays and Hines should pay rent to offset the potential loss of property tax money, share revenue with the city and the county and be forced to purchase prime downtown land at a fairer value.

“The only real goal of this project was for the Rays to get an incredible deal on a new stadium and push out all the other major developers so the Rays would not relinquish control,” wrote Alan Delisle, a former City of Saint PETERSBOURG. administrator, in an article on the No Home Run site. “They will always do what is in the best interest of the team and the company. The city of St. Pete will always be secondary.

Mayor Welch, however, said he and the project’s supporters were determined to see it through and that there was a real chance to transform the city, which has already changed dramatically from a sleepy retirement haven to a beacon for young residents with a hip downtown. far from the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. After the ballpark opens, the rest is expected to be completed over approximately 20 years in phases.

“I think we’re in a much stronger competitive position than ever before,” Welch said. “There is a huge amount of confidence that we will get it done this time.”