Tampa Bay Rowdies get their May 2 vote to expand Al Lang Stadium in MLS bid
ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rowdies bid to make the jump to Major League Soccer took a big step forward Thursday when the City Council unanimously approved a citywide vote on the team’s plans to expand their home field to MLS standards.
The May 2 vote means that residents can weigh in on whether the city could negotiate up to a 25-year lease with Rowdies’ owner Bill Edwards for historic Al Lang Stadium. The Rowdies plan to expand the downtown stadium to 18,000 seats.
Any agreement would have to approved by the council and is contingent on the team getting one of the four MLS expansion slots that should be decided within the next few years. The first two slots should be decided this year, said former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, president of the Edwards Group.
Baker said bringing an MLS team to St. Petersburg would take the city’s economic renaissance to the next level. He said adding an MLS team could be bigger for the city than the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the annual IndyCar Series race that returns next week, or the Tampa Bay Rays, who seek to escape their current St. Petersburg home of Tropicana Field and build a new stadium, possibly in Hillsborough County.
Baker also sang the praises of Al Lang’s views of Tampa Bay’s open waters (a spot once coveted by the Rays for a new ballpark when Baker was mayor in 2007), saying it was the best location of any current or proposed MLS stadium. The Rays backed off plans to build a 34,000 seat, retractable-roof, open-air, waterfront ballpark in 2008 before the issue could be put on the ballot.
Holding the Rowdies. referendum would send a clear signal to MLS officials that the city is behind the team’s bid.
“We want to make sure that check box is filled by the time they make their decision,” Baker said.
St. Petersburg is one of a dozen cities vying for an expansion slot, including strong bids from San Diego, St. Louis, Sacramento and Phoenix.
But having the nation’s 11th-largest media market is a big advantage, Baker said, noting that the ten largest markets already have MLS teams.
Baker, a Republican, is rumored to be considering a challenge against Mayor Rick Kriseman, the Democratic incumbent, in this year’s mayoral election on Nov. 7.
Kriseman, who didn’t attend the initial vote on the referendum in February, said Thursday he liked that the proposed stadium renovation wouldn’t expand the venue’s footprint into the bay (as the Rays’ 2007 plan did) or across Bayshore Drive NE.
He also praised Edwards’ promise not to ask for any public money for the planned $80 million expansion of Al Lang.
“How many cities see that happen?” Kriseman said.
A handful of residents, most of them downtown residents, voiced concerns about the proposal, saying they feared the streets would get even more crowded and noisier from post-soccer concerts.
After the vote, Edwards said he understood their fears.
“We won’t do anything to hurt our neighbors,” he said.
Edwards' company Big3 Entertainment also runs the nearby Mahaffey Theater.
More than two dozen residents spoke overwhelmingly in favor of authorizing the referendum. Supporters, many of them clad in the Rowdies' colors of green and yellow, said acquiring an MLS team would further the city’s economic development and foster civic pride.
Edwards is footing the $270,542 bill for the election. Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said mail ballots for military and overseas voters go out March 17. The rest of mailed ballots will be sent out March 28. No early voting will be held.