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When We Know Better We Do Better

Following my conversation with Elder Ricardo Welch, the senior pastor of Prayer Tower

Church of God in Christ, I had the honor of speaking with his cousin, Pinellas County Commissioner, Kenneth Welch.

Ken and I have known each other for some time on a community level. We have daughters that are the same age and, at one point, attended school together. It was essential to get his perspective on this project for various reasons.

  • He came up in a church displaced from the Gas Plant area.

  • His father is the late councilman, David T. Welch.

  • He’s a well-respected elected official with an inside view into how decisions are made that impact the community.

  • He’s a husband, a father, and a member of a community that is often disenfranchised.

  • He has unofficially made it known he will run for Mayor of St. Pete in 2021.

Commissioner Welch and I briefly discuss how baseball made its way into St. Petersburg at the expense of a forgotten community.

“I know you’ve already talked about most of this with Rickey,” he begins, referencing Elder Ricardo Welch. “Initially, the reason given for the proposition wasn’t for baseball. It was for redevelopment, jobs, and an industrial park…”

He reminds me that “the first sport was actually hockey. They played over here, and it (the stadium) was called the Thunder Dome. They did this while pursuing baseball.”

The Jobs Promised Never Came

“When you really think of it, the only real redevelopment that came was Ferg’s Sports Bar. There has been no economic development as a result of baseball. All the condos and apartments are not because of baseball, so it’s been a promise that hasn’t been fulfilled. Now we have the opportunity to reimagine that 85 acres and make good on the initial promise.”

Many people have ideas about what should happen with the land once baseball is gone. As a potential mayoral candidate, he will undoubtedly get asked what his vision is for the 85 acres many times.

“Mix-used with a range of jobs and a range of housing.” He responds quickly. “There’s enough land there. We are much smarter with our use of parking than we used to be. We don’t need that much parking,” Referring to the parking lots surrounding the dome. “With Uber and Lyft, we don’t need all that land for parking so that it can be used for something else.”

The City Needs More Than High-end Developments

“We need a mix of housing. As you see, everything going up now is not affordable housing. Even the housing you see going up on US 19 is considered market-rate which is not affordable.”

He's referring to three apartment developments currently underway on prime real estate in an area rebranded as the Skyway Marina District.

“When you have opportunities where the city and county control land, they need to make sure some of it is used for affordable housing. So I see that property as ripe for a mixture.” He adds.

Losing Your Childhood Church

He’s been a member of Prayer Tower since he was a child. When you learned you all had to move, what were your feelings? I ask.

“We were not happy. Rickey’s dad, Elder Clarence Welch, was the pastor of Prayer Tower all my life. He, along with my dad, David, and our uncle Johnny, were trustees of the church, as well as some others.”

A lot of work had gone into the building.

“Remember 14th Street at 4th Avenue was a hill. We were at the bottom of the hill, so they brought the interstate in and that kind of cut off the neighborhood.” He shares.

“But we had just built a two-story annex onto the back, and they announce this plan. So, we were not happy we had to move. But you know they had the whole promise of this is better for the community.”

Having his father on the city council when the decision was made likely played a part in how Welch received the decision. He was in high school at the time and had a front-row seat to the community conversations on the issue.

On the condition of the community, he was not blind to the reality of the situation.

“There were some homes not in good shape, but that was one of the places where black people had to live. It was still a community. There were businesses there. We had three or four businesses there, Betterway Cleaners, Brown’s Cleaners….”

As he calls out the names of these establishments, I am in awe. It makes me realize not only how small the black community is in St. Petersburg but also how flexible. When I was in first grade, I had a classmate named Dwayne Brown. He lived up the street from my aunt, and his father owned a dry cleaner on the corner of 16th Street South and 18th Avenue (Tangerine Avenue).

“Dwayne Brown is my cousin, and his mother is the elder Welch’s sister. She married into the Brown Family, and the Brown’s owned Betterway Cleaners.”

Did they relocate to 18th Avenue South and 16th Street? I ask.

“Yes, I’m not sure if it was right away, but that is where they ended up. There were also arts and other businesses on 16th Street. There were churches like First Baptist Institutional that were also uprooted.”

In the end the church, “Moved into the facility we are in now on 37th Street South. So we accepted it because it was for the greater good.”

Significance of the Impact

Integration brought new opportunities. One was the right to live anywhere in the city they chose. Losing the Gas Plant area could have had less impact on the black community as a whole for that reason.

Welch agrees to an extent. “Right, moving into Lakewood Estates was the big thing back then, so yes, it did lessen the impact. But still, we will never recover from losing the Gas Plant area because it was essential to the community.”

He remembers, “That sense of walking down the street and you do something bad and all your neighbors have told your parents before you can get home. And then you get in trouble when you get there. We’ve lost that sense of community.”

The psychological impact of losing communities like Pepper Town and Coopers Quarters…

There is no doubt that the lack of affordable housing is heavy on everyone’s mind. But there also seems to be a level of hopelessness. I ask the commissioner if he thinks this is the residuals of the past.

“I think the disruption is what has the effect because you’re uprooting the same area. Even now, we’re talking about the interstate adding express lanes. And plans call for retention ponds to be created. One of them is slated to go in across the street from the Manhattan Casino.” He responds.

Interestingly, he mentions the retentions ponds. I was watching the recent local debates, and someone brought it up. Oddly, none of the candidates were aware of the possibility of a retention pond on 22nd Street South.

“Several of us serve on the board with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), and when it came up, we shared the history of the area, and they were open to remove that from the list. That has been the thing. Why is it always mostly the African American community that is impacted.”

A Mindset of Equity

Welch explains the importance of learning from our experiences and being able to present facts “to move forward recognizing what the impact has been in the past.” The question is if he believes the community is motivated to take on that challenge?

“I do,” he affirms. I hear a lot about it. It meshes with what the community needs right now, and folks are talking about it. Housing, transportation, jobs, so I think you can really craft something that meets all those needs.”

One term that comes up in my research is the theme of unused or abandoned property. As a community, we need to combat blight. This is one way the government and developers justify coming in and saying we will take over this land for redevelopment? Welch is asked his thoughts on the subject.

A recent trip to Minneapolis has encouraged him. “They are doing really innovative things.”

Focusing on the community's needs first requires “the mindset that it’s a priority.”

When it comes to Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) dollars, Welch suggests “using the CRA dollars more as a grant than a loan,” which is a better approach.

“The whole intent was to help those under generational poverty who don’t have the benefits of some other businesses.”

He continues, “Viewing it more from a grant perspective is better, and the city seems to be moving in that direction. They recently brought George Smith on. It is to help folks keep their property and maintain, so they don’t end up spiraling down with code violations and fines.”

The Importance of Housing Education

Welch would love to see homeownership advocacy taking place to combat our elders being approached by developers and investors.

“If you keep people in their houses by educating them on what that home means from the point of generational wealth, they won’t lose it. A lot of people are now knocking on doors to get people to sell. My mom still lives in her home on 16th Street South. And she gets an offer every week.”

He adds, “People have to be educated on the value. The $50,000 profit may sound good, but where are you going to go live?”

He likens the process to people trying to navigate the school system, saying, “It’s complicated.”

The ultimate goal is to combat “talking in terms people don’t understand. So having a navigator or advocate can help people stay in their homes.”

What Does the Future Hold?

We’ve seen where the past 30 years have brought us. Where do you see the black community in the next 20 years? I ask.

“We are going to continue to be here, but there will be movement. Some of it will be economic decisions. But when it comes to housing, I look at my daughter’s generation, and they are buying homes in Manatee and Hillsborough County because they can get more house (square footage) for their money.”

St. Petersburg and Pinellas County are short on land to build.

“Unless there is an intentional focus on housing, which there is, but if something doesn’t change, you’re going to see more people moving out of the city. Also, look to see people moving south and west as more people are moving into our neighborhoods.”

Our discussion touched on Habitat For Humanity’s efforts to build more homes, with the city providing land for them to build. In a recent announcement, the agency shared they are launching a $6 million affordable housing project in St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park.

In the upcoming Census, Welch believes it will show “we are still growing although we are not the fastest-growing minority population.” African Americans are being outpaced in the area by Hispanics and Asians.

One trend that has challenged the strength of the black community is our best and brightest minds leaving for college and not coming back. However, Welch sees it differently.

“I’m seeing more who took that route but are now returning. I don’t know if it is the downtown scene that’s drawing them (referring to Millenials) back, which is different than when we were coming up. My daughter went to Boca Raton after attending college. She stayed about a year or two and then said she was ready to come home. My niece went to Europe for three years, and then she returned.”

Is St. Petersburg Winning Over the Millennial?

“We’re popular again,” he jokes. “We’re in the bay area. We have the beaches and stuff that appeals to them. So I think we can keep them coming back if we give them housing, jobs, equity, and justice. They are seeing no place is a panaceum. Everywhere has its problems.”

There’s an unspoken belief in St. Petersburg. If black children, especially black boys, don’t get out after graduation, the city has a way of swallowing them up. The commissioner doesn’t see a divide between those who leave to pursue a college degree versus people remaining to pursue other options.

“There are many ways to earn a living without a college degree.” He begins. “Everyone brings something to the table. I wanted to leave but ended up going to the University of South Florida.” Adding, “But I went to FAMU for grad school, and that was outstanding.”

On Teaching Our Children Our History

When it comes to history, I ask if he believes we are doing a good job. Commissioner Welch isn’t convinced because our generation and the ones before us haven’t done an excellent job of preserving our history.

“USF did a project called the Olive B. McLin Community History Project, and we have Courageous Twelve conversations. I asked my kids about both, but how would they know?”

He makes a valid point. Although there are projects here and there, they aren’t well-publicized. “We don’t have a good way of preserving or teaching our history. As older people are dying, they are taking that history with them.”

A critical voting block is missing because young people don’t understand our past when it comes to the political aspect. They don’t know black people built the infrastructure or the importance of the early communities like the Gas Plant area.

Some have no point of reference when the area is being discussed today.

Downtown we have a variety of museums, but where is our real black history museum? It is the same with the African American Trail. It was a good idea, but where are the daily tours and promotions for people visiting the area?

“I see more cities investing in some kind of cultural or African American museum,” Welch replies. “I really hope we can turn the current Carter G. Woodson Museum into something like that. There are different ways to do it from a tourist standpoint. The history has to be captured and preserved and presented in a way that people will want to come and see and learn about it.”

He references conversations about relocating the current Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum. The museum has been the center of debate for years. Opponents have long argued that it is nothing more than a social club for the current director and her friends.

“I know there is a discussion lately about upgrading at the current site. There is also talk about having it at the Trop site.” A recent press conference by Mayor Rick Kriseman states he wants to move it to the land across the street from the Manhattan Casino.

“Wherever it is, there needs to be some capital invested in it to preserve that history…even the history of the city. I know there are some exhibits downtown, but it doesn’t capture the full history.”

He asks me if I heard the comparison President Trump made, comparing attempts to impeach him to being lynched. “Well, The Times did an editorial a day later saying, no Mr. President, that was not a lynching, this is a lynching.

Then he shares the story of John Evans, a black man who was lynched in St. Petersburg on November 12, 1914, at the intersection of 2nd Ave and 9th Street South. The location in the Gas Plant area was blocks away from many black churches.

“He was dragged from jail, and folks standing around him dressed like they were going to church. He had been shot about 50 times. So we have our own history of lynching in St. Petersburg.”

Our history is not just about the bad things that have happened. There are many stories of triumph and accomplishments.

“There are so many people that are part of that history, like Doug Jamerson.” A product of the Gas Plant area, the former educator served 5 ½ terms in the Florida State Legislature and was appointed Florida Commissioner of Education. He also has a local school named in his memory.

“We have all this information, but it is in different places.”

On Talks of Reparations

You can’t just put an economic number on it.

“I did an Ancestry DNA test, and it took me all the way back to Africa. I received information on my great-great-great-grandfather, who was on a South Carolina slave roster. That slave owner, who is on that roster, had how many years of free labor? So you can’t put a number on it.”

I ask him if he feels people are afraid of reparations talk. “I think the word intimidates some people,” he answers.

“The county has a strategic platform that says we help the people who need it the most. The bottom line, it’s why we did the CRA in St. Pete. We recognize the generational impacts of poverty in pockets of St. Pete. This idea of reparations is a different word.”

His explanation. “It gets down to a different level. Who owes it, who pays it? Unless you get down to DNA and say, Mr. Welch of South Carolina, you got five generations of free labor to build an empire, and we’re entitled to this amount.” The complexity is real, and that’s “where it gets bogged down.”

Speaking as a county commissioner. “We know it is generational. We know there is discrimination. That’s what leads to generational poverty even in the school system. So it is a no-brainer that we need to invest in this community.”

He talks more about his visit to Minneapolis. “The mayor, Jacob Frey, put it this way, and I’m paraphrasing. Generational, not the impact, but the harm was intentional, so the redress has to be intentional. That’s all we’re doing with the CRA.”

Politics as Usual

It is weeks before the upcoming city election. There are four council seats on the ballot. I am interested in his take on one candidate, in particular, Eritha Akile Cainion.

“I have not sat down and talked to her about her campaign or her views.” He starts off with caution.

On the importance of building rapport with people who may have views and opinions that differ from ours, he views it as necessary.

“We are not a monolithic people, so we don’t have to agree on every issue. However, we do have to be able to talk to each other to exchange ideas without making it personal. The time may not be now, but at some point, there may be opportunities to partner on important issues, and when we do, we make a bigger impact for the community.”

We close out the conversation on his rumored run for mayor. Welch confirms it is not a rumor. Since our sit down, two political veterans, Renee Flowers and Frank Peterman, have announced their candidacy for Welch’s seat on the county commission.

“I’m running for mayor, and one of my priorities will be to make sure the CRA has the impact it was designed to have.”

UPDATE: Renee Flowers won the election for Commissioner Welch's seat. On November 2, 2021, Ken Welch became the 54th and first African American Mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Photo Credit 1: HEIDI KURPIELA Creative Loafing Tampa

Photo Credit 2: USF Commons

Photo Credit 3. WMNF 88.5

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