Welch discusses his priorities as he takes office

After testing positive for COVID on Monday, Mayor-elect Ken Welch was sworn in from his home and gave a short speech in a virtual ceremony.

BY MARK PARKER, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – A once staunch Jim Crow-laden, sundown town is now led by a Black man. The residents broke a dubious, 130-year-old white-only record.

When Kenneth T. Welch was sworn in as the 54th mayor of St. Petersburg earlier today, he recognized it as a sign of progress. However, he made it clear that his election was not so much about making history but more about creating an impactful change in the city where he was born and raised.

After testing positive for COVID on Monday, Welch will work from home until he is cleared from isolation. Following CDC guidelines, he is expected to begin working from City Hall on Monday, Jan. 10.

“I’m just ready to get to work,” Welch said Tuesday during a Zoom call. “You know, we’ve partied a lot. There’ll be parties in the future, but it’s time to get to work.”

In November, Welch received a booster shot and said he feels like he has a “regular cold.” With the rise of the Omicron variant, he encourages everyone to get vaccinated and boosted because “it’s the safest way for the inevitable.”

“Most of us will have to come in contact with COVID at some point.”

Welch plans to hit the ground running upon taking office and focus on the issues at the center of his campaign — beginning with the affordable housing crisis. He noted recent reports stating that area rental rates have increased by the largest margin in the nation.

“We’ll have a strategic, administrative position that will deal with that as a priority,” stated Welch.

He also plans to focus on youth and education, neighborhood safety and health, Tangerine Plaza, and Tropicana Field in his first 100 days as mayor. He’s bringing the city council back into discussions on Tropicana Field, held conversations with Pinellas County Commission Chair Charlie Justice and representatives from the Tampa Bay Rays on the matter.

“I want to bring that to some level of understanding of which way the Rays want to go,” stated Welch. “So that we can move forward and evaluate the recommendation from Mayor Kriseman and then move forward on that development.

“And of course, housing is a huge part of that Tropicana redevelopment as well.”

Welch plans to hit the ground running upon taking office and focus on the issues at the center of his campaign — beginning with the affordable housing crisis.

St. Petersburg City Council recently voted in favor of exploring the process of declaring a housing state of emergency. Once enacted, a one-year rent freeze would be in the hands of voters. Outgoing Councilmember Amy Foster brought the issue to motion, and Welch said he understands where she is coming from and shares her concerns.

“My focus is on looking at every tool we have,” said Welch. “Whether it’s city-owned land or the Housing Trust Fund we created in the county that is funding units right now …”

Welch said he heard stories from residents claiming their rent has doubled and believes that is neither sustainable nor justifiable. He plans to look into long-term affordability, something stipulated in the projects funded from the Housing Trust Fund.

He explained that some properties have 99-year agreements with developers, meaning rent would have to stay under the affordable classification for 99 years.

“So, we’ve got some means to have that kind of stabilization that will stand up to legal challenge,” he explained. “But, we’ll look at what Councilmember Foster has recommended and see if that’s a tool that we can use.”

Welch said he would research Councilmember Robert Blackmon’s city-backed mortgage proposal but said other proven methods include expanding first-time homebuyer programs and Habitat for Humanity. He added that the focus seems to be on acquiring land “because once the land is gone, then the affordable housing calculation becomes really difficult.”

He added that corporate buyers come in and buy “huge chunks” of land, and that is an issue he hopes to address.

City council also recently heard the results of a detailed structural racism study and subsequently voted to approve the study’s recommendations. Welch called the study the painful truth of the history of St. Petersburg. He said the study reinforced stories passed down through generations of residents. He also stated the importance of documenting those stories for all to read and understand.

“We can’t move forward if you don’t really understand where you’re coming from,” he averred. “And the generational impacts of that structural racism – whether it’s poverty … crime rates, rates of government assistance, or bad health care outcomes – all those things.”

Welch said the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Act (CRA) serves as an excellent example of how to address systemic racism. Noting the CRA, which he helped implement as a county commissioner, brings a substantial revenue source to south St. Pete for things such as housing, education, and workforce development.

Welch said he seeks equitable development that recognizes the city’s history while providing viable funding to programs that uplift the community.

“My approach has always been about repair and uplift to a community that has been harmed by a number of things,” said Welch. “Whether it’s the interstate, Tropicana Field or systemic racism.”

Considering the systemic racism highlighted in the study, Welch said the city electing him to serve as mayor is a sign of the willingness and eagerness of the community to move forward equitably.

Welch reiterated that his campaign centered on inclusive progress and said voters knew he stood for intentional equity. Welch said a decisive victory on election night showed the city has come a long way but added that he also witnesses the long-lasting effects of systemic racism and poverty every day.

‘On Jan. 6, we will begin to implement the goals and plans that you have told me will help St. Petersburg become its very best. And, yes, we will have the opportunity to celebrate in person in the near future,’ said Ken Welch.

“It means we’ve got an opportunity as we come to this nexus about the Gas Plant, Tropicana Field redevelopment,” asserted Welch. “All this discussion about equity and the impact of the disparity study that shows that we’re not utilizing minority businesses, and now the structural racism study.

“I think we’ve got all of the evidence, knowledge and background we need to set an intentional path forward – and that’s what we’ll do.”

Welch said his plans to address the racial equity gap are outlined in the CRA and include education, workforce opportunities for ex-offenders, and criminal justice reform. He will continue to implement pre-arrest diversion programs and work to improve and expand Pre-K programs to ensure children are prepared for kindergarten.

Welch stressed that his entire administration would fully invest in equity, saying it must be more than just a department or an equity officer — it has to be an administration-wide culture.

“The interim administrator that I select will know that I want that to be something that is like a heartbeat within the organization,” explained Welch. “That equity is important, that it’s not just some office off in the corner – it’s a part of the way we do business in the city.”

Welch is also looking for innovative solutions to address nutritional equity. He recently had a productive conversation with outgoing City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle regarding the area of Midtown that many call a food desert. Welch noted that outgoing Mayor Kriseman is considering a proposal to bring the Taste of the Islands grocer to the Tangerine Plaza.

Welch said he awaits Kriseman’s decision on the proposal and said he will “hop right on that once we’re in office.”

“We understand the need for healthy food access in the area,” said Welch. “Whether it’s the Urban Youth Farm right down the street or Enoch, can they be a part of that solution, making fresh produce available? Can we innovate through co-ops?

“Again, it’s almost like housing where we need to look at all available options and find the things that we think will be the best fit and actually address the needs of the community.”

The preponderance of gun violence this year is another issue in the community that Welch will have to address immediately. He recently discussed solutions with community activists at the Kwanzaa Black Male Summit. He plans to utilize those who can connect to the young people that current programs have failed to reach.

Welch said there is no magic solution to gun violence that has plagued the city but believes intentional outreach to the younger generation is an essential first step. He also thinks more job opportunities and access to safe and upgraded community centers will help, and he plans to expand both.

“And then I also have already started speaking with mayors from around the country,” added Welch. “There were several mayors with me in the White House last month and the mayors at the Harvard Kennedy School in November.

“Sharing best practices of what works in Atlanta or Shreveport or Seattle and seeing if we can use that here; we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Welch will enlist his administration’s help when addressing those issues, people such as his Deputy Mayor and Chief of Policy Stephanie Owens, Assistant Administrator for Strategic Initiatives Rob Gerdes, and interim City Administrator Tom Greene.

There are no plans for an inauguration gala or ball, but the community celebration will take place when he feels it is safe. He said March and April are possibilities.

Welch thanks the community for its support and wants people to know that his inauguration is just the beginning.

“This is the beginning of the work,” he affirmed. “The goal is making impactful change in our community. We all need to bring that same energy to making that change happen as we did to making this election historical.”

Where to watch the inauguration?

Mayor-elect Welch will give a brief, live, virtual address at noon on Inauguration Day, Thursday, Jan. 6.  The speech will be carried on the city’s television channel St. Pete TV and streamed on the city’s Facebook page.  It will also include video from earlier in the day of Welch being sworn in as the city’s 54th and first African-American mayor.

To reach Mark Parker, email mparker@theweeklychallenger.com

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