Sunday, February 25, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Exploring the options for aging Al Lang stadium

Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards is right. Al Lang Stadium in downtown St. Petersburg is well past its prime and in serious need of a makeover. But city officials are also right to push back on the notion of making an immediate major reinvestment that makes little sense. The stadium's future should be on the table as the city drafts its Downtown Waterfront Master Plan. The stadium's current condition is unacceptable, but options range from a significant renovation to demolition and creating more green space along the waterfront.

It took just five months for Edwards to go from announcing he was the new controlling owner of the Rowdies to threatening he might move the soccer team if Al Lang's condition doesn't improve and the team has to keep sharing the stadium with baseball. City officials say they have been addressing some valid complaints by the Rowdies, from the condition of the turf to broken seats. But Mayor Rick Kriseman's spokesman says the stadium's use as a venue for baseball won't change. Complicating the discussion is that a nonprofit group, the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission, which organizes the St. Petersburg International Baseball schedule, has a contract to maintain the facility.

The broader question is what Al Lang should look like in the future — if it exists at all. A hundred years after spring baseball arrived in the city and eventually departed Al Lang for more modern stadiums and large training facilities elsewhere in Florida, it looks more likely that the future holds a broader purpose for the site and should not be dictated by any one interest.

Supporters of the Dalí Museum, for example, have long suggested the Al Lang site might be converted to parkland and allow for the extension of Beach Drive south, with additional retail and restaurants. Outside experts from the Urban Land Institute recommended late last year that the city redevelop the site into a multifunctional space for sports as well as art, music and markets — in part to take pressure off Vinoy Park to host so many large events.

The institute called for eliminating the stadium parking lot and altering streets to the east and south to so-called "convertible streets" that can easily be shut down for events. Whether that includes a configuration for a professional sports team, soccer or otherwise, was not specified.

Those are just two ideas, but they should not be the only ones. The City Council is set to soon approve a contract for a consultant to help draft the waterfront master plan.

Any major decisions on Al Lang should be vetted through that process — though Kriseman should make sure the stadium's caretaker meets its obligations to make Al Lang adequate for the Rowdies' use this season. And Edwards should be patient. With former Mayor Rick Baker on his staff, Edwards should have had few illusions about what buying a soccer team with a contract to play at Al Lang until 2016 could mean.

A century after the city took a bold move to attract baseball, it stands at another crossroads with Al Lang. Neither history nor short-term complaints should narrow the discussion about what should come next on this prime piece of the downtown waterfront.

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