The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday should support a May voter referendum on whether the city should be allowed to negotiate a deal with the Tampa Bay Rowdies for a new stadium on the downtown waterfront — if the Rowdies are awarded a Major League Soccer franchise. The Rowdies make a reasonable argument that the city needs to send a strong signal of support before the franchises are awarded, and the team will pay for the referendum. There is no risk to the city in holding the referendum, and the harder decisions would come later.
Rowdies owner Bill Edwards announced his plans to seek an MLS franchise to great fanfare in December. The league is expanding with four new teams, and two of those could be awarded before the city's Aug. 29 primary election. That's why Edwards wants to pay for a special May 2 voter referendum. He envisions a new, 18,000-seat soccer facility on the site of Al Lang Stadium, the former spring training baseball stadium that is now the Rowdies' home. Renderings show a compact stadium with open views of the water that would fit within the existing footprint of Al Lang. The new structure would not require dredging the bay or rerouting exiting streets, and it should not affect the Saturday Morning Market or the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The most critical consideration for local leaders and taxpayers: Edwards would finance the $80 million stadium and the team purchase privately.
Even with no public money on the line, long-term leases along the waterfront require a voter referendum, a safeguard that keeps the city's greatest asset from being taken over by private development. Council members on Thursday will consider scheduling the referendum, which would ask voters to let the city approve a deal of up to 25 years for an MLS team to play at the Al Lang site. The referendum also establishes soccer as the primary use for the site, and it makes clear that no public money would go toward stadium construction or MLS fees. If the Rowdies do not win an MLS franchise, there would be no long-term city agreement and no new stadium.
Should the referendum be approved by the voters, and should Edwards succeed in luring Major League Soccer to St. Petersburg, the long-term agreement between the team and the city will be another significant issue. Six of the eight council members, not just a simple majority, would have to approve the agreement, another good safeguard. That document should lay out what would happen to the site if the Rowdies were to be sold or the team tried to leave town. The stadium design also would have to be approved. As this process moves forward, those questions should be answered transparently for the public.
An MLS soccer franchise playing in a sparkling new stadium in downtown St. Petersburg would be a valuable addition to the city. Holding a referendum in May is a short timetable for voters to take the first step toward Edwards' ambitious vision to remake Al Lang Stadium into a first-class home field for an MLS franchise. Normally, this could wait until city elections in August, but Major League Soccer's schedule requires moving quickly. Putting the issue on the ballot is a show of good faith with no risk to taxpayers, and the City Council should allow the referendum to go forward and let Edwards make his pitch to voters.