St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch calls for ‘broader analysis’ of Albert Whitted Airport
ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Ken Welch, whose social media posts have sparked speculation about the future of Albert Whitted Airport, including its potential as the location for a Tampa Bay Rays baseball stadium, says that it does not have a specific plan for downtown waterfront property.
In a perfect world, he said, its 119 acres would be a greenspace extension of the city’s popular riverfront parks. It certainly wouldn’t be used for high-rise buildings or condos.
“I want to see what value the airport brings right now and decide what the best use of this property is in the future,” he said.
Welch made his comments at a Friday afternoon press conference that his administration said was in response to multiple media interview requests since his social media posts late last month. He said a lot had changed since a 2018 economic study of the airport and called for a “broader analysis to assess the entire site under various uses and assess the impact on the community”.
“What progress should look like for this public space, acknowledging the history of the past 100 years, but focusing on charting the course for the most beneficial and equitable use for the citizens of St. Petersburg for the 100 coming years ?” he said.
Welch said he had received positive feedback for years about asking him if there is better use of the site.
“It has been a whispered conversation in this community for a long time. … And frankly, people were afraid to present it because there is a lot of resistance from our supporters at the airport. I absolutely respect that,” he said. “I’m just saying we need to have the conversation.
“When Mayor (Rick) Baker introduced this, my daughter was a newborn. She turns 20 in June,” Welch said. “And I don’t want to see another generation pass without at least having the conversation about the best use of 119 acres of public property for the next 100 years.”
Welch wouldn’t say who specifically brought up Albert Whitted Airport as a potential site for a Rays stadium during a Feb. 3 meeting he had with team executives Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton, and Pinellas County Commission Chairman Charlie Justice.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about for years,” Welch said. “The most recent meeting is just a continuation of that discussion.”
Welch said there was no urgency or proposed timeline or price for the study. He said the only reason it came up was because the city council needed to update the airport master plan.
A small group of pilots watched the press conference at City Hall and some asked their own questions, inquiring about a meeting with the mayor.
“The mayor seems to be wrong,” local driver Rand Snell said. “He seems to have some sort of animosity against the airport, which I don’t understand. It’s unfortunate.”
Walt Driggers, who keeps an airplane at Albert Whitted and learned to fly there in 1966, shared with the Tampa Bay Weather a February 8 email from the FAA to Albert Whitted officials. A deputy director of the Federal Aviation Administration in Orlando said St. Petersburg received a $3.4 million federal grant last year to rehabilitate a runway. The city is bound by a 20-year agreement to operate the airport with every FAA grant it receives.
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“The city has been bound by federal obligations for several years and we hope it is aware of them,” Rebecca Henry Harper wrote to Jack Tunstill, instructor pilot and chairman of the Albert Whitted Airport Advisory Board.
City Council Member Ed Montanari also watched the press conference. A retired commercial pilot, he was chairman of the Albert Whitted Blue Ribbon Task Force in 2004 and has the ear of many in aviation. circles. He said the feedback he received on the mayor’s plans was “very negative”.
“We already had this community study once. How many times are we going to do this? Every 20 years? he said.
Asked if the city’s electorate was different from that of 2003, when 72% of voters favored keeping the airport open forever in a referendum, Montanari said: “The airport is a tremendous asset and St. Petersburg’s waterfront is sacred. I don’t think that’s changing.