Mayor Ken Welch was sworn in as St. Petersburg’s 54th and first African-American mayor on Jan. 6 by the Sixth Judicial Circuit Judge Michael J. Andrews. Mayor Welch received tremendous support from his family on the mayoral journey that made history.
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Though the inauguration ceremony had to be virtual, it was no less historical as Kenneth T. Welch was officially sworn in on the morning of Jan. 6, becoming the city’s first-ever African-American mayor.
A career politician who grew up in the Gas Plant district, Mayor Welch served on the county commission for two decades. His father, David Welch, served as the first Black city councilman and unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1991.
In his first official address, Welch said this is a significant moment, representing the breaking of another barrier.
“As a child of the civil rights era, I grew up in areas of our city where my family lived not by choice, but by sanctioned, discriminatory practices that defined where African Americans could live in our city,” he asserted.
Though the election is historic, Welch said, the goal is not just to make history but to work together to make a difference and impact this generation and generations to come.
“Today, we embrace the peoples’ desire for a community where every person is valued, every idea is considered based on its merits, and where a common vision is forged based upon progress that is inclusive, innovative, informed, intentional, and in touch with all,” he said.
St. Pete’s 54th mayor has already made key staff selections for his new administration, including Stephanie Owens as deputy mayor and chief of policy and Janelle Irwin Taylor as director of communications. Also, Tom Greene will move from assistant city administrator to interim city administrator, and Doyle Walsh will serve as senior adviser.
In the coming days, Welch plans to announce additional appointments and organizational changes “to address continuity of operations, emerging issues, and to maximize our effectiveness, efficiency and customer focus.”
In response to the affordable housing issues and sharp increases in rent in the area over the past year, the mayor said he is creating a high-level position, the assistant administrator for strategic initiatives, whose first area of focus will be the preservation and development of affordable and workforce housing.
Former Neighborhood Affairs Administrator Rob Gerdes will step into this role, as “his record of collaboration, cross-functional project management, policy development, and community engagement will serve us well in this important work,” Welch stated.
More initiatives and organizational changes will follow, including business process improvement and implementing an effective diversity, equity and inclusion program, Welch noted.
In response to the disparity study results and the findings of the structural racism report, the administration will move intentionally on minority contracting and supplier diversity. The mayor will also incorporate the feedback from the Community Conversations held last month with nearly 500 residents and stakeholders.
“I’m excited to work again with our friends on the county commission, including St. Pete’s own, Commissioner Rene Flowers, and incoming Chair Charlie Justice,” Welch said. “The city’s relationship with our county commission is vitally important and greatly valued.”
Pinellas County provided funding for the Pier and the new police department headquarters, tourist tax dollars to support cultural institutions, a partner in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, and will continue to work closely with the city in the science-based response to the COVID pandemic, he said.
“As a step toward building a stronger working relationship, I have asked County Commission Chair Justice and City Council Chair [Gina] Driscoll for a joint meeting of the County Commission, the city council, and the mayor’s office to discuss items of mutual interest, including our partnership with the Tampa Bay Rays,” averred Welch.
Welch also thanked congressional and state legislative leaders for their support and partnership, from the federal American Rescue Plan and Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, to state partnership on the Gateway Express, the SunRunner Bus Rapid Transit, the first BRT in Tampa Bay, and the impactful decision to bring the new courthouse for the 2nd District Court of Appeal to St. Petersburg.
“When we can work together for these kinds of impactful initiatives, the positive impact on jobs and quality of life for our community is substantial,” he said.
The mayor recognized our business and arts community for their investment in St. Pete.
“Your voice matters and I look forward to working with you to support a culture and environment where business and the arts thrive,” he said. “The arts is a vital part of our culture and economy, and I remain committed to supporting the arts, moving with purpose to support the planned expansion of the Woodson African American History Museum, and to advocate for an adequate and consistent level of funding support for the arts — a level of support that lives up to the moniker of ‘city of arts.'”
Welch pointed out that last week was Kwanzaa and Umoja, the first principle of Kwanza, is reflected in the African proverb: “I AM because WE ARE.” The mayor then his delivered his own personal take on this wise proverb.
“I, for example, am a child of the Gas Plant, where Tropicana Field now stands,” he said. “I am a product of the last segregated schools in Pinellas County and the first truly integrated schools.
“I am the son of Dr. David T. Welch, who served 12 years as a councilmember, and my mother Alletha, our queen, a pillar of wisdom, love, and quiet strength. I am husband to Donna, father to Keonna and Kenya, and our new and rowdy family member, Sunni the rescue pup. And I have a huge and loving human family, including my sister Katrina, my nieces Keina and Andresa, my nephew Tre, and many family members who are watching virtually today.”
When we listen to each other and work to truly understand our viewpoints, Welch said, we grow stronger collectively by building on our individual knowledge and strengths.
“When we do that, we will move past silos, prejudices, and petty politics, and we will be able to build an inclusive path forward,” he asserted.
Welch warned that the conversations may not be comfortable or easy, but it can and must be done because “we are in this together.”
“We are the young person searching for an apartment that doesn’t consume half their salary,” he declared. We are the senior looking for security in their retirement, as the cost of living continues to increase. We are the small business owner struggling to keep the family business open in the second year of a global pandemic. We are the young people who attended our youth summit in June and spoke to the mental trauma of living with the epidemic of senseless gun violence which plagues some of our neighborhoods.
“We are the LGBTQ student looking for acceptance instead of hostility and prejudice. We are the sons and daughters of the Deuces and the Gas Plant still waiting for the promises of equitable economic development made more than three decades ago.
“We are those hard-working citizens who want their neighborhoods to be safe and healthy places to raise their families — not racetracks or firing ranges or dumping grounds for litter. We are a community that must make responsible decisions on infrastructure, environmental policy, and resiliency to mitigate impacts and adapt to the reality of sea-level rise and climate change.”
We are all of those things and more, Welch said.
“The power of our partnership is in our collective capacity for progress,” he said. “And working together, we will move our city forward, every day. We are St. Pete, and as my father would say, ‘It’s time to get to work.'”
The pre-recorded program included local saxophonist Jordan Bolds performing the national anthem, poet Giovanni Cerro reading his work “Ode to St. Pete,” and the new mayor’s sister, Katrina Welch, singing “Order My Steps” accompanied by Jamal Dorsey.
Local writer and director Erica Sutherlin performed the poem “We are St. Petersburg,” written by St. Petersburg’s Terri Lipsey Scott.
Also, the pre-recorded program included the Pledge of Allegiance on the steps of City Hall by 11-year-old Francesca Ramaeka of Lakeview Fundamental, 10-year-old Caleb Nissen, and 8-year-old Liana Nissen, both from Shorecrest Preparatory, and 14-year-old Santana Holt from Bay Point Middle School.
Representing the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths, Pastor Clarence Williams of Greater Mt. Zion AME Church gave the invocation, and the benediction was given by Imam Abdul Karim Ali, president of the Tampa Bay Area Muslim Association, Rabbi Phillip Weintraub, Congregation B’nai Israel of St. Petersburg, and Pastor Renae Phillips, King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church.
To reach Frank Drouzas, email firstname.lastname@example.org