ST. PETERSBURG — Nearly a decade ago, the Tampa Bay Rays deep-sixed plans for transforming Al Lang Stadium into a new ballpark after encountering stiff public opposition.
Last month, business magnate Bill Edwards announced plans to spend up to $80 million to upgrade the waterfront stadium where Babe Ruth once played into a venue suitable for Major League Soccer.
So why does a plan that proved toxic for the Rays in June 2008 appear golden for the Tampa Bay Rowdies now?
"Nothing's changed. It's a different plan. My plan fits the footprint of the ballpark. It doesn't extend out anywhere," said Edwards, who owns Rowdies and wants to join the United States' premier professional soccer league.
The Rays' plans would have impacted Bayshore Drive and involved dredging in Tampa Bay to extend the site into the water, Mayor Rick Kriseman said.
The environmental issues involved with dredging and the concerns about accommodating parking for up to 34,000 fans drove the opposition in 2008, he said.
But the Rowdies stadium capacity would be about 18,000, and the structure would be no taller than the neighboring Mahaffey Theater, which Edwards also operates. That translates into smaller crowds and fewer parking issues, Kriseman said.
Edwards, and former mayor Rick Baker, who is president of the Edwards Group, learned from the Rays' mistakes, Kriseman said.
Keeping the upgrades within Al Lang's existing footprint was key, he said. "That's a big deal."
The City Council will meet today for a non-binding discussion of the proposal, which would need to be approved by voters in a referendum. The plan would move forward only if the Rowdies gain an MLS franchise. Ten cities are vying for two spots in the current round of MLS expansion. Another round is likely within a few years.
What sets Tampa Bay apart from Nashville, St. Louis, Sacramento and the other cities gunning for the MLS?
"We're the number 11 TV market," Edwards said.
Another key difference from the Rays' 2008 proposal? Edwards promises he'll pay for it all himself.
With at least $230 million needed for an MLS team (the first expansion round carries a $150 million franchise fee plus the stadium upgrades), Edwards says he won't ask the city, county or state for a dime.
"It's coming out of my own pocket or other investors' pockets," he said Tuesday.
Those other potential investors, including some institutional investors, will remain unnamed for now, he said.
"I'm not sure how it's going to shake out yet. It's a little premature," he said.
If the council approves a May 2 referendum, Edwards will pay the $250,000 cost.
What's important for people to remember, Kriseman said, is the vote only authorizes the city to negotiate a 20-year lease for Al Lang with Edwards. The City Council would have to approve the final agreement. If the MLS bid fails, nothing happens.
"There are a lot of steps to this," Kriseman said Wednesday.
Council chairwoman Darden Rice, an ardent Rowdies fan and season ticket holder, suggested last month that a deal might include renaming the Rowdies for St. Petersburg.
Edwards isn't interested. The Rowdies have a history of 40-plus years as a franchise and have fans on both sides of the bay.
"I have no plans whatsoever for that," he said.
Edwards said he hasn't reached out yet to downtown residents, who led the charge against the Rays' plans, but plans to do so.
Albert Scafati, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said his group hasn't formally discussed the issue yet, but he's personally thrilled.
"I think St. Petersburg is on the map and Edwards has done a lot of great things here," Scafati said. "It would be a coup for the city."
The resurgence of a Rowdies MLS bid comes almost a year after an earlier attempt by Edwards to put a soccer vote before city residents. Last spring, a proposed referendum was aborted after Orlando's MLS team asserted its territorial rights. Edwards said in a recent conversation with Orlando officials that the issue didn't come up.
Disarray in the Rowdies former league, the North American Soccer League, he said, influenced his decision to try to move up to the MLS.
The City Council will discuss the issue at a committee of the whole meeting with all eight members at 3 p.m. today in Room 100 at City Hall.