ST. PETERSBURG — A group of Black pastors has endorsed Sugar Hill Community Partners to redevelop Tropicana Field’s 86 acres, a choice that flies counter to the pick of former mayor Rick Kriseman last year.
The group gathered just south of the ballpark at noon Thursday to announce their endorsement of Sugar Hill, a group led by San Francisco developers JMA Ventures. They were flown out to Sacramento last week by Sugar Hill and given a tour of the developer’s projects by Kevin Johnson, former Sacramento mayor, three-time NBA All-Star and member of the Sugar Hill team.
Pastor Clarence Williams said Sacramento’s Black community is similar to St. Petersburg’s Black community. Other pastors who attended the trip said the same to the Tampa Bay Times. Williams also said the decision process could’ve been handled better and suggested it could be slowed down or opened back up again.
“One of the things I wanted to express to everyone, all of the stakeholders, is being able to see firsthand a community that is much like ours in a city that’s much like ours,” he said. “I felt like this group deserves to give the mayor and the City Council their version of what they feel they can do.”
Pastor Frank Peterman, a former state House member, said the diversity on Sugar Hill’s team was a plus.
“Our job, from my vantage point as pastors and others, is to hopefully just offer a very strong statement about why we feel Sugar Hill is the best option for St. Pete,” he said. “We just want to show the strength of the pastors and others that we feel this is the best option.”
The Rev. J.C. Pritchett also traveled with the group, but did not make an endorsement for either developer. He said the trip was valuable and wished they had done it last year and “not the last month of the decision being made.” He said he has a meeting coming up with the other finalist, Miami’s Midtown Development, Kriseman’s preferred choice to redevelop the site.
“Out of the 50 people we met, including police officers and employees, everyone had something positive to say about Mayor Kevin Johnson,” Pritchett said. “I want what’s best for African Americans who had 86 acres stolen from them 36 years ago.”
Johnson, who spoke at Thursday’s press conference, said it was important to build trust with pastors.
“I just realized that for this community that trust us, they would need to come and see what we’ve done in the past,” he said.
Kriseman announced that Midtown was his preference with 34 days left in his tenure. Mayor Ken Welch made no promises to honor that pick for redeveloping the property, formerly part of the Gas Plant neighborhood, which was predominantly Black.
Welch last month sent 15 questions to Sugar Hill and Midtown “that kind of fill the gap between (then) and now,” he said. Welch said in a speech recapping his first 100 days in office that he will make a decision on a developer by June 30.
Welch, who was sworn in in January, campaigned on a platform of making good on broken promises to the Gas Plant community with the development of Tropicana Field. His family lived in the Gas Plant neighborhood and was displaced by the ballpark.
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“We appreciate and share the community’s passion for this vital generational project,” the mayor said through a spokesperson. “My evaluation process continues and our city staff continues their due diligence. We will adhere to our procurement protocol until a decision is made.”
Kriseman was joined in December by Watson Haynes, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League, in announcing his pick.
“We are partners with Midtown,” Haynes told the Tampa Bay Times. “We have no comment at this time solely because we’ve given the mayor the opportunity to make his selection.”
Midtown Development declined to comment.
Sugar Hill made several changes in their follow-up proposal. The proposed convention center shrunk from 1.2 million square feet to 150,000 square feet. The newly available space would go toward developing affordable housing.
Sugar Hill also added team members and sweetened the deal for community organizations. They pledged $5 million to fund an endowment for a Community Equity Endowment that they proposed could be managed by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and $1 million to The Woodson African American Museum of Florida’s capital campaign for a new museum.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s president and CEO, Randall Russell, told the Times the foundation spoke to developers interested in winning the Tropicana site job.
“Prior to the selection by the City of St. Petersburg, the Foundation will not make and has not made any specific agreements,” Russell wrote in an email. He added that those who could benefit from an equitable economic development approach must be incorporated into the final development plans.
Sugar Hill also noted that due to inflation and supply-chain issues, “it is clear that the cost of the project will be higher than originally anticipated.” In its original plan, an estimated 20 percent of the construction jobs would go to residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods in St. Petersburg. Their new proposal proposes 20 percent Minority Business Enterprise inclusion across all phases, “design, construction and operations.”
Midtown’s proposal has not changed much. The group has provided more specific grant and financial allocation information and solidified adding 200,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor office space. On rising costs, they have said they were “on the hook for any economic factors” beyond the original costs outlined.