It’s providential for me to be mayor at a time when the city wants to redevelop some 86 acres that represent the second displacement of the Black community, which was done in the pursuit of baseball and what ultimately became Tropicana Field. That uprooted a thousand residents, businesses and churches in the Gas Plant area.
The first dislocation was caused by the construction of Interstate 75, which went right through where my grandfather’s business was. For me, the Gas Plant’s history informs what equitable development is. Some folks come in and look at 86 acres and think it’s a blank slate. I would argue that it’s not a blank slate. It is literally etched with the blood and sacrifice of almost a thousand people who gave up their community and their businesses in the name of progress. I live that life. That is my history.
AARP: Why do you think your predecessors in St. Petersburg’s government allowed the Gas Plant residents to be so profoundly impacted by constructing the highway and baseball field?
Welch: The whole history of redlining in St. Pete is no different from what you see around the country. Laws were put on the books about where African Americans could live, and it placed them in the Gas Plant for the most part. Later, that just happened to be the area where there was the least resistance. Folks who were pursuing professional baseball needed a large area where a baseball stadium could be placed. The number one driver was the pursuit of baseball. And just like when the interstate came in, the disruption to the Black community was a secondary issue in terms of the powerful folks making the decision.
A disparity study of St. Pete showed an underutilization of minority business enterprises. A structural racism study showed the clear pattern of structural racism and its impacts in St. Petersburg. Among those obvious impacts was the redlining, and then the dislocation of the African American community.
AARP: Neither your grandfather nor father are alive to see you lead this redevelopment effort.
Welch: Yes. My father passed in 2013. But he always told me that there was a promise made to the Gas Plant community and we must make sure that promise is kept. When I ran for mayor, the question came up. I would always answer, “This is personal for me. I lived this. It’s not just another project. I lived it. I’ve seen the impacts on the community. It’s about equitable development and shared progress.”
AARP: What is the pulse of the residents — especially those who remember the community before the construction and displacements?
Welch: I don’t have to read their pulse. They are very vocal! The community is highly engaged. The new Gas Plant neighborhood will be an equitable development that honors the history and the promises that were made. As a child of the Gas Plant, that’s the only way to move forward in my eyes.
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