5 questions for Mayors at Suncoast Tiger Bay ‘State of the Bay’
Ken Welch and Jane Castor are in the hot seat. Image via Daniel Figueroa IV.

Welch Castor Tiger Bay
A new Rays stadium, affordable housing, unyielding traffic congestion — there is plenty to talk about in the Tampa Bay region.

Suncoast Tiger Bay is hosting a “State of the Bay” event Jan. 4 at 5 p.m. at the Vinoy in downtown St. Petersburg.

The sold-out event will feature St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch, along with neighboring Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor from across the Bay.

Bay News 9 Anchor Holly Gregory is moderating the event and will no doubt come prepared with questions relevant to the region. But in case she needs some ideas, here are five questions I would ask the mayors as they enter 2024.

For Mayor Welch: Why should residents support the current plan for a new Rays baseball stadium and Historic Gas Plant development?

The biggest issue facing the city of St. Petersburg, and even arguably the Tampa Bay region at large, is how to proceed with the proposed development of a new Rays baseball stadium and surrounding development.

Welch has made clear that he prioritizes honoring the site’s historic legacy and restoring prosperity to the community displaced from the Gas Plant district when the existing stadium was first conceived in the late ’80s. That includes provisions in the current plan such as a new African American History Museum home, plenty of affordable housing and access to income mobility.

But the plan in its current iteration has critics — those who worry the city is giving away too much for too little in return. These are the sorts of critics who use phrases like “corporate welfare” and “government handouts.” They shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. After all, there is a reason the Rays’ existing contract with the city to play ball at Tropicana Field is now just over three years from expiration with no finalized plan up to bat.

For Castor mostly, but also Aungst: Is there any hope that if a Rays plan in St. Pete fizzles yet again that your city might still be on the table?

There is a huge contingency of people — arguably most of them from Tampa — who believe the best place for the Rays to play is in Tampa. Studies have shown the team would have the greatest access to fans within a 30-minute drive if they played in Tampa, and plans surrounding a possible Ybor City stadium were met with at least some fanfare.

But funding for a new stadium in Castor’s city has been elusive. Tampa residents have a long memory when it comes to stadium funding, after many felt bamboozled by the package that brought us Raymond James Stadium, which was built exclusively using taxpayer funds.

And while a Tampa stadium has been the more prominent talking point, stadium plans were previously floated in the Carillon area — it’s not Clearwater proper, but it’s close — and there had been whispers about possibilities in Clearwater’s downtown, though they never got anywhere close to gaining traction.

The bigger question for Aungst as it relates to baseball though might be about the Clearwater BayCare Ballpark where the Philadelphia Phillies play spring training, which is slated for its own revamp.

For Aungst: Anything about Scientology and downtown development

There is a very real feeling of frustration among Clearwater residents and stakeholders watching as neighboring cities’ downtowns flourish and thrive. Clearwater arguably has one of the most beautiful downtowns of the region — its waterfront is expansive and Clearwater Beach is just a hop, skip and jump away over the causeway.

Yet despite its aesthetic appeal, the downtown area lacks the draw scene in downtown St. Pete to the South, Tampa to the east and even small-town Dunedin to the north.

Most blame the stagnation on Scientologists scooping up land while doing little to activate it. The Tampa Bay Times has the most in-depth explanation and rundown of just how much property entities and individuals affiliated with the church have acquired in recent years.

After voters approved a $400 million mixed-use development in late 2022, there is renewed hope for economic revitalization. The vote authorized the sale of downtown property to pave the way for hotel space, new apartments, dining, retail and green space. The project is meant to build on “Imagine Clearwater” and breathe life into a downtown that, unlike neighboring cities, appears a ghost town on any given Saturday.

For Castor: What can you do locally to alleviate crippling traffic congestion throughout the city?

You don’t have to live in Tampa to know that its traffic is a nightmare.

While much of the transportation conversation is passed off to state officials, including the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), it is a local problem.

Castor entered office with plenty of optimism on the horizon for solutions. The All for Transportation referendum was polling well and looked poised to pass. And pass it did, until a court gutted it and then, later, threw it out entirely. A second iteration failed after confusion about whether it was legally on the ballot. Also in Castor’s early days, the Hillsborough County Commission’s makeup was markedly less conservative and notably more inclined to fund transportation improvements that included transit.

Now entering 2024, the Commission has a GOP majority, there isn’t another transportation referendum brewing and things look grim for those who think the best solution to traffic congestion is not more or wider roads, but access to quality public transportation. (That’s something of a misnomer in Hillsborough County where its transit is frequently flirting with insolvency, has faced scandal in its top ranks and is now the target of frustrated lawmakers.)

There is perhaps some area of potential relief. FDOT is currently working on the section of Interstate 275 and Interstate 4 commonly known as “Malfunction Junction” that will add capacity to the section in hopes of reducing backups and affiliated fender benders.

For everyone: Without the usual lip service, how will you alleviate the affordable housing crisis in your cities?

All three Mayors have been focused on affordable housing initiatives.

In Tampa, the City Council there approved $12 million for affordable housing in its new budget. (Though Hillsborough County just days later slashed its affordable housing allocation and reallocated cut funds to road repavement and sidewalk repair.)

Clearwater has an Affordable Housing Committee working on the issue.

St. Pete offers a variety of programs, such as employee housing subsidies, a lot disposition program and a robust partnership with Habitat for Humanity, among others.

Yet housing throughout the region remains among the most unaffordable, ranking at No. 63 in a Tampa Bay Business Journal analysis of the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ Regional Price Parity Index — that’s well into the bottom half of 100 regions analyzed.

And the National Low Income Housing Coalition finds that housing in Florida overall for a person working at $11 an hour (the state minimum wage at the time of analysis) would require 92 hours or work per week to afford even just a modest one-bedroom rental home at market value. That is more than two full time jobs.

The same study puts the fiscal year 2023 housing wage (the wage required to afford a two bedroom home at fair market value when working a standard 40-hour week) at just shy of $32 per hour. The estimated hourly mean renter wage (what renters actually earn) is just over $23 per hour, a deficit of about $9 per hour.

Local governments are hamstrung by state preemptions, such as one that mostly blocks them from implementing rent stabilization measures. But we know this, and pointing it out is no longer an acceptable answer from local leaders who still must find a way to identify solutions.

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises Media and is the publisher of FloridaPolitics.com, INFLUENCE Magazine, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Previous to his publishing efforts, Peter was a political consultant to dozens of congressional and state campaigns, as well as several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella. Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterSchorschFL.


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