Not too many years ago, bulldozers came and in a short amount of time erased off the face of the earth one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods known to many as the Gas Plant area.
The minds behind the destruction of the neighborhood were a group of Pinellas County business folks whose desire was to lure a Major League Baseball team to St. Petersburg. A plan that had been in the making since 1976 was a rather simplistic one—“if you build the stadium, they will come.”
Powerful men such as City Manager Alan Harvey and St. Petersburg Times Publisher John B. Lake began lobbying city council to bring the stadium downtown, with the ultimate plan to move the Negros so that a stadium could be built. The plan was also proffered with promises to the African-American community that the community would be rebuilt with affordable housing, light manufacturing, modern industrial park and 600 new jobs with combined salaries of an estimated $5.6 million by the end of 1980s.
After realizing that the promises made to the black community were not going to materialize at the level promised, then City Councilman David Welch threatened the city with court battles and serous repercussions if the they went forward with their plans to replace the Gas Plant area with a new baseball stadium as opposed to the redevelopment areas promised to the African American communities.
Mr. Welch’s threats mattered little. Six months later the council voted unanimously to lease the 66 acres of the Gas Plant area to the sports authority for a mere $1 per year.
By 1986, 285 buildings were bulldozed, 522 households were relocated and 30 businesses died a slow death. Community leaders and organizations such as the Community Alliance and religious leaders like Rev. Henry Lyons representing from the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance supported the plan as long as what they identified as a percentage of the new stadium’s concessions would go to minority owned businesses. That idea died a slow death also.
Sometime later, Doug Jamerson, then Florida’s Secretary of Labor, announced publicly that St. Petersburg needed to make good on a long-standing debt, which was to make good on its promise to the African-American community to redevelop the Gas Plant area. He also proclaimed that these back door deals served as the basis for the racial tensions that existed between the black community and the white establishment.
Fast forward to this month’s frantic move to have Tropicana Field drawn into the Southside CRA in the event the Rays move and the land is developed. Councilman Wengay Newton sent out calls to leaders in the community to appear before council in support of Tropicana Field being drawn into the CRA.
The proposal would have potentially meant the CRA process would have had to start over, but the cost to do the right thing should never have a price on it.
One of the most profound statements I have heard regarding leaders doing the right thing was while attending a HOPE VI Conference. A public housing executive director spoke about his failed attempts at his first HOPE VI redevelopment plans. He talked about the moral crossroads he found himself in balancing the millions of federal dollars that would have been lost versus the number of lives that would be impacted. For him, his choice became clear he chose to do the right the thing, by scrapping his entire HOPE VI project and starting anew.
If the City of St. Petersburg is to ever get to a place where the sun truly shines on everybody, leaders must begin to exercise a level of moral courage by placing the needs of the people before the needs of individuals who continue to come to the well and drain it dry.
The desire for St. Petersburg’s leaders to do the right thing by the African-American community could have proven to be one of the most heroic acts this city has ever seen and served as the basis for rebuilding the foundation for genuine working relationships between the black community as opposed to the pseudo slave mentality that many African-Americans leaders display, simply to get some crumbs that fall from massa’s table.
However, as opposed to taking the opportunity to do the right thing by supporting Councilman Newton’s proposal, Mayor Rick Kriseman, City Administrator Gary Cromwell, Councilmembers Darden Rice, Charlie Gerdes, Jim Kennedy and Amy Foster chose to hold on to the tradition of their predecessors by declaring their commitment to stadium and all of the potential revenue for a baseball team, not the African-American community.
Councilman Nurse went a step further by referring to Newton as a moron and accused him of grandstanding, yet this is the very same councilmen who invested $4,000 of his personal money to buy influence in the City Council District 7 race (for the purposed of stacking the council with pro baseball people) and the very same council person who has purchased houses located in the African-American community and labeled it as his own personal “economic development” strategy while his colleagues remain quiet, turning their heads to avoid the discussion of a potential major conflict.
Our children and those that are to come behind us deserve to know that the leaders in this community stood with Councilman Newton in demanding that the Tropicana Field be drawn into the Southside CRA.
~ Maria L. Scruggs, President, St. Petersburg Branch NAACP