ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch are political allies — until it comes to the Tampa Bay Rays. Everyone believes that Major League Baseball belongs on their side of the bay.
Naturally, they faced many questions about the stingray in the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s annual Mayors’ Forum room at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. Led by JC Pritchett, the group’s first black president, Tiger Bay hosts events to discuss political issues and ask questions of elected officials.
Now that the Rays’ proposed split season with Montreal is dead, the team must choose between St. Petersburg and Tampa. Welch is reviewing proposals to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field, home of the Rays through 2027. The focus is on affordable housing for those earning $20-25 an hour and minority contracts are top priorities.
In Tampa, the Rays are aggressively pursuing a site in Ybor City. This could come with an indoor stadium and a more generous financial incentive for the team. Could this lead to a toll feud?
“First of all, I never even envisioned that there would be any type of bidding war or, you know, pull and push,” Castor said. “I think we’re on the same page, that we all think we’re too big an area to lose a major league sports franchise.”
Welch reiterated that the Rays are secondary to his first priority – equitable development and jobs promised to the community of Gas Plant, where he grew up before it was relocated by Tropicana Field.
“I think the Rays can be part of that,” he said. “A lot has been sacrificed to get the Rays here.”
Still, Welch said he was rebuilding relationships with the Rays and county commissioners to use $100 million in bed tax paid by tourists for a new ballpark. He also touted a waterfront baseball stadium as “iconic and unparalleled”. Castor said there would be a “bottom line” in public funding.
“On our side of the bay, I believe we have one last at bat, so to speak,” Welch said. “I want to do our best.”
He added: “We need to know that the Rays are seriously considering St. Petersburg. So on top of all that, they have to be a real partner and not just think it’s going to be funded just off the backs of taxpayers.
The mayors agreed on a “right-sized” convention center in St. Petersburg and disagreed on Tampa Bay’s water issues and how the Development Council Economic Tampa Bay was renamed.
The two mayors weighed in on a proposed new bill that would allow municipalities to be sued if they pass a law that cuts corporate profits.
“It’s just ridiculous,” Castor said. “This type of attack on self-reliance continues, it becomes more egregious every year the Legislative Assembly meets in Tallahassee…It will stop any local municipality from stopping businesses from doing anything, really.”
The top question on Friday — determined by the Tiger Bay jury — was asked by Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers. She asked if mayors would order police to enforce a law enacted last year that would ban individuals from helping those queuing to vote.
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The question quickly elicited negative responses from both mayors. For that, Flowers won her second “Cut out a politician for lunch” mug since being elected.
“Again, the level of solving problems that don’t exist,” Welch said. “You had 67 election supervisors, as you know, bipartisan, tell them the 2020 election went very well in the state of Florida. There is no fraud. And so the legislature keeps trying to solve problems that don’t exist. And they make it harder, as you said, for people who vote.