Mayor-elect Ken Welch shares his vision for St. Pete's economic development – Tampa Bay Business Journal – Tampa Bay Business Journal

Mayor-elect Ken Welch will be taking the reins in January during a time of rapid economic development in St. Petersburg. 
His four-year term will begin on January 6, 2022 at his inauguration. Welch served for 20 years as a county commissioner and his roots in St. Pete run deep. 
Growing up in the Gas Plant neighborhood he had his first job at his grandfather’s woodyard business before it was razed to make room for Tropicana Field. His church was displaced when the interstate was built and his father David Welch was the first Black man to serve on City Council in St. Pete. His father also ran for mayor in 1991.
He is expected to start quickly on a wide-ranging agenda. He sat down with the Tampa Bay Business Journal to discuss economic development in the city.
The discussion has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What are your thoughts on the Tropicana Field redevelopment?
My focus 35 years later is on those original promises of jobs and equitable development now coming to fruition. Baseball is a part of that, but to me, it’s really secondary. I love the Rays, they’re our team. We’ve developed a great rapport with the Rays, even as a county commissioner where I served for five terms. I lead the effort for us to add an additional penny of bed tax for the purpose of helping fund a new Rays stadium. Those dollars are still in place. We’ve got great partners on the county commission. The 21 principals in the RFP the Kriseman administration laid out I think are solid. They include housing, office space, transportation, green space, connections to the community, event space, and a technology and innovation hub. I think the final two (developers), Midtown and Sugar Hill, are strong proposals.
If Kriseman selects a developer before leaving office, do you intend to support that choice?
Mayor Kriseman and I meet often and he’s stated he will make a selection. We will evaluate any recommendation he makes based on return on investment to the community, but at the same time we have to have the conversation with the other stakeholders: the city council, county commission, the Rays and the greater community and we’ve already started that process. It’s not the same make-or-break proposition it was when I was growing up here when there was nothing going on downtown when we were almost desperate. Now St. Pete is going through continuous progress whether the Rays are here or across the Bay. Our preference, of course, is they stay right here in St. Pete and if we’re not successful then we certainly want them in Tampa.
What are your views on regionalism and working with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to market this as a collective region?
One of the things I was criticized for by some, which I looked at as a great asset, is having those endorsers from all around Tampa Bay. Bob Buckhorn, Jane Castor, Les Miller, Andrew Warren, all folks who I’ve worked with on regional issues. We have such great power when we work together as a region. We keep what makes our individual city great, but it’s smart for us both as a city and as a region to keep those partnerships.
There’s a strong conversation right now about whether to change or demolish Interstate 175 and Interstate 375. Do you have an opinion on the issue?
One question I have is, how do you get a large number of cars in and out of downtown St. Pete if you lose I-175? What raised my attention was they said this was to re-connect the Black community. Now I’ve been a commissioner for 20 years, grew up here, and had two family businesses just south of Tropicana Field. I’ve never heard that complaint from anybody. What I-175 is separating is a school and a park. The neighborhoods are way down from there. You’re not making a direct connection to these neighborhoods, so what’s the real reason you want to do that? Is it more real estate you can develop? The other thing is we must talk about the EMS response time. How much time would this add to responses to get you from where you are to the hospital? We have to answer those questions to really understand the benefit of eliminating that infrastructure.
How do you plan to address the affordable housing crisis in St. Pete?
We know what works for affordable housing, we just have to be more intense in our efforts. Back in 2006 when I was on the county commission we created a housing trust fund, which is the first time we allocated local General Fund dollars to create our own local funding source. In 2017 went back to the voters and added $82.5 million to it from Penny for Pinellas to the fund. Now it’s over $100 million. Developers are able to use that money to subsidize housing and make it affordable. Delmar, Skyway Lofts – these are all affordable for folks making $19 an hour or less. We’ve done 5,000 units like that around the county. I want to double down on that using subsidies and policies. We’re calling it an Opportunity Agenda. Right now, the pace of the luxury condos and higher price apartments are outpacing the number of affordable and workforce housing. I hear it from CEOs who can’t keep people here and I hear it from college students who want to know where to live after they graduate. 
Do you believe there should be a continued focus on bringing office space downtown?
It’s hard to say what the lasting effects of the pandemic will be on the demand for office space. Companies have been changing their projections for how much space they’ll need because virtual work is working so well for them. I think we’ve yet to see the full impact on how work has changed, but that being said our biggest, best shot is Tropicana Field, Gateway and even the Skyway Marina District.
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