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St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman shelves plans to ask voters for permission to expand Al Lang

St. Petersburg's mayor backs away from a plan to ask city voters to give the Rowdies a longer lease.
Fabricio Ortiz, left, of the Jacksonville Armada and Tampa Bay Rowdies' Maicon Santos battle for the ball during a game at Al Lang Stadium in downtown St. Petersburg last year. LARA CERRI   |   Times (2015)
Fabricio Ortiz, left, of the Jacksonville Armada and Tampa Bay Rowdies' Maicon Santos battle for the ball during a game at Al Lang Stadium in downtown St. Petersburg last year.LARA CERRI | Times (2015)
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ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman and the Tampa Bay Rowdies announced plans in March to ask voters to give the team — and its owner, Bill Edwards — a longer lease for historic waterfront venue Al Lang Stadium.

At the time, Edwards and a team executive said a longer lease would allow the Rowdies to expand Al Lang and transform it into a city showpiece.

But those plans have been shelved along with any request to ask the county for tourism dollars to add seats and other amenities.

Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard said this week that Kriseman told him the city wouldn't seek hotel bed tax money for Al Lang or the Rowdies. That means the referendum idea appears dead.

Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby declined to comment further than a brief statement.

"Based on the mayor's conversations with Mr. Edwards, there is no urgency for a referendum related to a lease on Al Lang Stadium," Kirby said.

He referred all other questions to Edwards, whose office didn't elaborate.

"In my last meeting with Mayor Kriseman, I asked for a renewal of the management agreement for the maximum length allowed by the charter," Edwards said in a statement.

The current agreement is a four-year lease that expires in November 2018.

Extending that lease would require voter approval under the city charter.

While Kriseman and Edwards are remaining mum about the decision to drop the push for upgrading Al Lang into a first-class soccer stadium, they might have lost interest after discovering that the Orlando City SC, a Major League Soccer franchise, has territorial rights over St. Petersburg.

Council Chairwoman Amy Foster said in March that Edwards told her and other council member of his desire to join MLS. He had made similar comments to the Tampa Bay Times shortly after buying the team in 2014.

But after the Times reported Orlando's rights over the market, Edwards said he had no immediate plans for the Rowdies to join MLS and was happy to remain in the second-tier North American Soccer League.

The ongoing campaign to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in the city may have also played a role. If the Rays decide to build a new stadium in the city, the county tourist tax dollars would be an essential piece of the financial puzzle.

For now, the mystery remains, but the terseness of Wednesday's statements stand in stark contrast to the exuberance of Rowdies chief operating officer Lee Cohen in March on the prospect of a bigger, better Rowdies home.

"From our standpoint, we feel that the city of St. Petersburg and where we're at in Al Lang is a great location for soccer to grow. It's a great area and a thriving area, there's a lot of success there. We feel like an expansion to a proper stadium and proper facility could lend itself to be the great flagship cornerstone piece of downtown. … It's not just an important project for the Rowdies or for the sport. It's important for the city of St. Petersburg because it adds another piece to an already up and coming city," Cohen told a Rowdies blog.

Council member Steve Kornell said he hadn't heard about the plans to drop the referendum, but surmised that the campaign to keep the Rays might have interfered.

"It might make sense to work on the Rays issue at this point and work on the Rowdies down the road," Kornell said. "I like Al Lang having a tenant rather than sitting empty."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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