ST. PETERSBURG — Bill Edwards, St. Petersburg businessman turned civic fixer-upper, entered the den of the Suncoast Tiger Bay political club Tuesday to pitch his latest reclamation project: the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Attendance is building enough that the soccer team will gradually outgrow Al Lang Field, he said.
"Really, we need a new stadium someday," he said, seeding the idea of building a new waterfront venue. "That's my dream."
Several members of the standing-room-only lunch crowd had a different agenda. Soccer aside, they wanted to know what the fix-it man plans to do for an encore.
Will he reopen a shuttered movie theater in St. Pete Beach? ("We'll have to look into it," he said.)
How about a deteriorating former hotel and adjacent building at Fourth Street and Central Avenue that has been frozen for decades because of a complicated lease? (Hadn't heard, but will check it out.)
Any interest in the Pier? (Not planning to buy it and doesn't advocate a major overhaul. "In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with the Pier other than getting redone.")
What if he bought the Tampa Bay Rays? ("I would go to a mental institution.")
He also drew the line at operating water taxis between St. Petersburg and Tampa. ("If it springs a leak, don't call me.")
Edwards, 69, made his mark as a mortgage lender, though that business has fallen on rough times. His St. Petersburg company, Mortgage Investors Corp., stopped marketing VA loans in October, laying off hundreds of employees. Today, a skeleton crew of fewer than 30 remains to service existing loans, Edwards said.
Beyond selling mortgages, Edwards is a music producer and guiding force in more than 20 projects. He's spending $40 million on the Sundial entertainment plaza downtown and runs the Mahaffey Theater, the Club at Treasure Island and two Treasure Island hotels.
Edwards, who bought a majority stake in the Rowdies in December, was keen Tuesday on touting the team's quick financial turnaround. The team had budgeted for operating losses of about $1.6 million. Today, Edwards indicated, the Rowdies are not far away from breaking even. He struck a deal with Ch. 38 to televise games and signed up 33 sponsors. Five games into the season, he said, per-game attendance is up 150 percent, with average attendance of 5,000.
Arguably, the biggest venture on Edwards' plate is Sundial, an attempt to reinvigorate the failed BayWalk project. Edwards promised omnipresent cameras to avoid the security problems with unsupervised teens that had plagued BayWalk. To combat traffic woes, he offered to buy a parking garage himself if needed. Asked if an Apple store could be among the new tenants, he said, "Maybe something like an Apple store."
After the lunch, Edwards Group president Rick Baker said Sundial is still on track to open by Thanksgiving to capture the pivotal holiday sales season.
Brazen and proud, Edwards dismissed a suggestion that he may be overextended. Referring to a recent Tampa Bay Times graphic that depicted his many holdings across a Monopoly board dubbed "Billopoly," Edwards quipped, "They didn't get it all. … There's not enough squares on the board."
Asked if he holds any ill will toward media who reported about his earlier financial failings, Edwards gave a "sticks and stones can break my bones" reply.
"I don't give a rat's patootie what they have to say," he said.