Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

Plant City looks to lease stadium for soccer tournaments

PLANT CITY — Goodbye, baseball and softball. Hello, soccer.

City officials say they're nearing a deal to bring professional soccer to Plant City Stadium for five to six months starting in April.

But the deal comes at a price. If finalized by commissioners on April 8, it will force three youth softball and baseball leagues to play elsewhere.

In their place, Temple Terrace-based VisionPro Sports Institute Inc., which owns four United League Soccer teams, including a pro team, would gain exclusive use of the 6,700-seat stadium and nearby parking lot.

City commissioners Monday directed the staff and city attorney Ken Buchman to draw up a lease.

The deal would run through August and net the city $50,000. VisionPro would have an option to remain through September.

The company says it turned to Plant City after a scheduling conflict sidelined a proposal with the University of South Florida. It contacted the city last week.

"The stadium itself is appealing. It has everything we need, locker rooms right off the field and lights, bathrooms," Clay Roberts, director of soccer for VisionPro, said. "It's right off I-4."

In a letter to officials, the company said it plans to take on renovations, including adding sod to the infield and stadium seating in right-center field, possibly within days to prepare for an April 13 game. The city, meanwhile, would assume irrigation and mowing.

The deal would create a windfall as the city seeks a potential buyer or long-term tenant to absorb maintenance costs for the stadium and surrounding grounds. It started advertising the 75-acre site on its website last month.

Once the spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds, the city took on upkeep after the Reds pulled out in 1997 and moved to Sarasota.

Since then, recreation officials have turned to weekend baseball and softball tournaments, along with other events, to generate lease revenue.

So far, the revenue hasn't matched the maintenance tab. Last year, the city paid $380,000 in costs while garnering only $80,000 in leases from both the stadium and surrounding grounds.

"This gives us an opportunity to generate additional income in the short term," City Manager Greg Horwedel said. "Our primary goal is to eliminate or curb that annual cost."

Meanwhile, three youth softball and baseball leagues that use the stadium — the U.S. Specialty Sports Association, the Global Sports Alliance and Florida Suncoast Sports — could be forced to play elsewhere.

Jack Holland, the city's recreation and sports director, said he expects the leagues to shift to the nearby Randy L. Larson Softball Four-Plex, which is exempted from the VisionPro deal.

The four-plex, at 1500 S Park Road, is already home to numerous baseball and softball tournaments. He said he'll contact the leagues this week.

Roberts said the stadium is a good fit for the company. After the USF scheduling conflict he recalled Plant City Stadium where the Reds played. Roberts grew up in Plant City.

"It's a great location for us and in a great city," he said. "It's a shame it's been sitting for so long."

VisionPro has expressed willingness for a long-term deal, but it hasn't submitted a proposal yet, city officials said. Proposals are due April 8.

VisionPro operates four teams under the United Soccer League, including VSI Tampa Bay FC, a professional team.

Roberts said the company had planned to submit a proposal for long-term use of both the stadium and four-plex, possibly for tournaments and training.

It's also looking to build a 28,000-seat stadium elsewhere in Hillsborough County. Roberts wouldn't disclose the location, but said talks are under way.

The team's first game in Plant City is set for 7:30 p.m. April 13 against the Rochester (N.Y.) Rhinos.

Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.

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