St. Petersburg City Council moves Rowdies' MLS bid forward
ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council chamber had plenty of soccer aficionados outfitted in green and gold show up Thursday to support the Tampa Bay Rowdies' bid to join Major League Soccer and expand their waterfront home at Al Lang Stadium.
Those fans also had a former mayor (and potential future mayor if he runs in 2017) in attendance. Edwards Group president Rick Baker, representing Rowdies owner Bill Edwards, was there but did not speak in favor of the ordinance.
It would authorize a May 2 referendum that would allow the city to negotiate a long-term lease with the Rowdies contingent upon the team receiving one of a handful of MLS expansion slots from the United States’ premier soccer league.
But Baker did step forward when a proposed tweak to the ballot language raised the issue if whether the city could make a deadline to post a legal notice in the Tampa Bay Times in time for the final March 2 vote.
The Rowdies would pay the $1,000 fee for the legal notice, Baker said. In fact, Edwards has pledged to pay for up to $80 million in stadium improvements and a $150 million MLS franchise fee without asking for any public money.
That stance was applauded by many of fans and other supporters at Thursday's meeting, including the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Partnership and the Downtown Neighborhood Association. They also argued that bringing the MLS to the city would stimulate economic development, attract a diverse population and put the city on the map of hip destinations.
Council members agreed. They advanced the measure to a final vote set for March 2.
There were a few dissenters, however. They said the downtown waterfront was ill prepared for an influx of fans, parking hassles and trash that would be generated by a proposed 18,000-seat stadium.
City Council member Charlie Gerdes successfully altered the ballot language to make clear that soccer wouldn't be the only event held at the historic waterfront stadium. Edwards, a music promoter who also manages the nearby Mahaffey Theater, has said he wants to use the space for concerts, too.
“I just want people to know before they vote, that there’s going to be other types of events,” Gerdes said during a break. City staff contacted the Times to see if there was a way to run the notice (Short answer: yes.)
How many concerts would be needed to make the financing work, asked council member Karl Nurse.
Baker promised to get those details for council members.
City Council chairwoman Darden Rice, an ardent Rowdies fan and season ticket holder, said she understood residents’ instincts to protect the city's downtown waterfront.
But, she said, the city’s founders didn’t envision that space would always remain a green space. After all, she said, they built Al Lang in 1947.
“Someone said this was a generational opportunity,” said Rice, echoing a previous resident. “I agree.”
MLS officials have said they'll select the first two of four expansion teams in the coming months, probably in early summer. More than a dozen cities have submitted applications to the league.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.