Will St. Pete’s next mayor be Black?

Ken Welch, Pinellas County Commissioner

Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch will kick off his campaign for mayor next month.

BY DEIRDRE O’LEARY, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch has picked up a key endorsement in advance of his official campaign kickoff: Congressman Charlie Crist. The two men have a longstanding relationship in local government.

Congressman Charlie Crist endorses former County Commissioner Ken Welch for mayor.

“There are some good choices in this race.  But I’ve known Ken a long time.  I think he would be a great mayor, and that’s why I’m endorsing him,” said Crist.

City Councilwoman Lisa Wheeler-Bowman also endorsed Welch, saying, “I’ll do what I can do to help him get elected.”

A Pinellas County Commissioner for 20 years, Welch was first able to get elected following the creation of single-member districts in addition to countywide districts.  Typically, it is more difficult for people of color to get elected countywide or citywide.  Welch assisted in getting the charter review amendment narrowly passed in 1999, expanding the commission to seven members, consisting of four district seats and three countywide seats.

Welch was the first District 7 commissioner; a position just won by Rene Flowers last month.  The district covers most of St Petersburg.

“I felt a special obligation to serve the district while serving the county as a whole.  Having a seat at the table was very important,” said Welch.

When he rose to chair the commission in 2018, he was able to direct more resources to benefit District 7.

“For example, the SBA Small Business program, which includes minority-owned businesses, was funded at less than $100,000.  Funding increased to $20 million in a year and a half,” he stated.  “You need to make a fact-based argument as to why it makes sense.”

Under the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA), financial institutions are encouraged to do business in low and moderate-income neighborhoods.  However, it was Pinellas County’s policy not to fund a CRA that was not in a downtown district.

“So the Pier and the Mahaffey qualified for funding under ‘slum and blight,’ but south St. Pete didn’t.  We were able to flip that in 2012.”

Welch was able to get the first non-downtown CRA approved in 2015.  An extensive district, it covers most of south St. Pete, approximately from 49th Street to Fourth Street and from Fifth Avenue down to 29th Avenue.

“It generates $6 million real dollars we can use to impact poverty.”

Other projects initiated by the county in partnership with the sheriff’s office, the city, and other service providers during Welch’s tenure included Pinellas Hope and Project Safe Harbor, which direct funding to assist the homeless and provide alternatives to prison.

“We need to have the proper priorities for where we spend funds.  We know that most things are not a law enforcement issue; they do not need a law enforcement solution. Homelessness, for example.

“Progressive Pinellas has been our mantra for decades.  When I was the only Democrat on the commission, it was about moving us forward.  We made a lot of progress.  But my goal is to make sure that progress is sustainable.  We need to deal with the issues that require a straightforward discussion.”

Welch stresses that the community, not just law enforcement, needs to be involved with neighborhood issues.  “My approach is accountability for all: Elected folks, law enforcement … also the community.

He feels the only way to move forward is to have some honest conversations.

Regarding police body cameras, Welch thinks they are essential.

“We talked to the sheriff (Bob Gualtieri), who was against it at one point.  He had patrol cams in the cars.  After the George Floyd incident, I talked to him about that, and he soon changed his mind. Nowadays, we all have a video camera in our phones; these incidents will be recorded one way or another.  It’s important we have the perspective from the law enforcement officer as well.”

As mayor, Welch would like to fund an “opportunity agenda” for youth.  “The top-down model loses the connection with the most at-risk youth.  I want to create some innovative solutions to reach those kids and have reached out to the community who can help with that.”

A big issue for the next mayor will be planning the Tropicana Field site’s redevelopment when the Rays leave in 2028.   Welch thinks it’s off to a good start.

“The city did a really good job on the RFP.  They addressed the history of the Trop; also opportunities for jobs, affordable and workforce housing.  They set the right parameters.  The question will be the execution and implementation.”

His father, David Welch, was on the city council when Tropicana Field was developed.  His family just finished building an addition to their church when the city came in to buy the property.

“Why is the Black community always the one to make the sacrifices? It happened with 275; it happened with the Trop.  This is a chance to make those promises finally come to fruition.”

So what kind of leader would the first Black mayor of St. Petersburg be?

“Mayor is an executive position; a leadership position in the spotlight.  But you still need those basic skills of communication and collaboration.  You still have to work with the city council and the community.  Inclusion is important.  Everyone has to be at the table, even someone you disagree with on issues.  We will not move forward as a community if we don’t get input from everyone.”

Welch will be kicking off his campaign in January. He said it was an honor to serve as County Commissioner, and he’s looking forward to offering his services as mayor and leading the city forward in an inclusive way.

To reach Deirdre O’Leary, email do’leary@theweeklychallenger.com

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