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Edwards says Al Lang expansion isn't about moving Rowdies to MLS

ST. PETERSBURG — Does Bill Edwards want a Major League Soccer team or not?

That's one of the questions swirling about as Mayor Rick Kriseman plans to put a question on the November ballot about extending Edwards' control over Al Lang Stadium, where his Tampa Bay Rowdies play.

Edwards recently told Kriseman he wants an MLS team and needs to expand the historic stadium to get a franchise. At least that's what City Council Chairwoman Amy Foster said Kriseman told her in a meeting last week. It's also what Edwards has told her and other council members previously, Foster said.

"That's what Bill Edwards wants," she said Thursday. "Kriseman mentioned that Bill Edwards wants to go after MLS. Bill Edwards has told us all that before, as well."

The Rowdies are in the lower-tier North American Soccer League.

Kriseman declined to comment on whether Edwards told him he wanted an MLS team or whether he had told Foster about Edwards' intentions.

"The pursuit of MLS is just not a city issue," said Ben Kirby, Kriseman's spokesman.

Shortly after buying the Rowdies in 2014, Edwards told the Tampa Bay Times that joining the MLS was a "no-brainer" and that St. Petersburg would be the "perfect place" for the country's premier soccer league to expand.

But on Wednesday, Orlando City SC, the popular, newly awarded MLS franchise, told the Times it had exclusive MLS rights over Tampa Bay.

Any discussion of a new MLS franchise would have to include Orlando City. And no one — not MLS, the city or the Rowdies — had inquired, said Leonardo Santiago, the team's vice president of communications.

In response to a story posted earlier Thursday on the Times' Bay Buzz blog, Edwards said any discussion of joining the MLS was "premature and not part of our present plans." In the statement, Edwards praised the NASL and said he was confident that the league will continue to grow and prosper.

Kriseman has reached "similar conclusions," Edwards said.

"Our mutual objective is to obtain a long-term lease for Al Lang Stadium in order to ensure that the Rowdies have the opportunity to grow and succeed in St. Pete," the statement read.

Edwards has told the Times in previous interviews that he wanted to expand the stadium, perhaps up to 18,000 seats. That cost has been estimated at up to $70 million.

Foster said the Kriseman administration has been talking to Dunedin and Clearwater about jointly asking the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council for bed tax money for their respective needs: an expansion of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a new Blue Jays spring training facility and the Al Lang expansion.

She said the request wouldn't interfere with bed tax money that might be needed for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium in Pinellas County because 1 cent has already been reserved for that purpose. The combined request for Al Lang, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Blue Jays facility would come from a "different pot" of tourist bed tax money, she said.

Kirby didn't respond when asked about the joint effort. The terms and length of the Al Lang lease are still being negotiated, he said.

The city charter requires that the question about extending the lease go before voters.

In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays gave up on plans to build a stadium on the Al Lang site after resident opposition.

Council member Karl Nurse said he isn't enthusiastic about expanding Al Lang for soccer, especially minor-league soccer.

"For the last 40 years, soccer was supposed to be the next big thing," he said.

The City Council must approve any referendum before an Aug. 23 deadline, City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch told council members.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459.

Edwards says Al Lang expansion isn't about moving Rowdies to MLS 03/10/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2016 10:25pm]
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