St. Petersburg voters have an exciting, low-risk opportunity to help bring Major League Soccer to Tampa Bay. A single question on ballots arriving by mail this week asks voters to allow the city to negotiate a long-term lease for a new waterfront stadium if the Tampa Bay Rowdies win an MLS franchise. Rowdies owner Bill Edwards would pay for the expansion franchise and a compact, 18,000-seat stadium on the Al Lang Stadium site. Voters should say yes.
MLS expects to add four teams over the next couple of years, and Edwards is competing with 11 other cities in hopes of winning one of the first two expansion franchises later this year. That would move the Rowdies into the top tier of U.S. professional soccer. Edwards is emphasizing the media exposure — Tampa Bay is the 11th-largest media market and MLS already has teams in the top 10 markets — and strong support from fans and businesses. Voter approval of moving forward would strengthen the case that Tampa Bay is ready for a major league soccer team.
The City Charter requires that voters approve long-term leases of public waterfront land. Edwards is paying for the May 2 special election, and mail ballots should be arriving now. The ballot language asks voters to authorize the city to enter into an agreement of up to 25 years to make Al Lang the home field for an MLS team. It makes clear that no public money would pay for stadium construction, expected to be about $80 million, or buying the franchise, another $150 million. That sounds steep, but Edwards already is talking to other potential investors. And if St. Petersburg is not awarded a franchise, no stadium would be built.
The stadium design fits within the existing footprint of Al Lang and preserves open views of the water. Some downtown residents have voiced concerns about parking, noise and light pollution from games and other events. The team has fairly addressed those concerns and won the support of several downtown groups. It cites a parking study that identified nearly 5,000 public parking spaces available downtown after the stadium fills up during a home game. The design also incorporates directional lighting and sound technology to limit the impact on nearby residents. Those requirements and other details could be cemented in a lease or similar agreement that would be negotiated with the city and approved by at least six of eight council members.
On its merits, the Rowdies proposal is ambitious but reasonable. The team averages about 5,500 fans per game now, and attendance has increased since Edwards bought the team in 2013. The Rowdies also have forged strong ties with youth soccer clubs across Tampa Bay and foster a family-friendly atmosphere at games, finding a niche in a region that has three other major sports franchises. The new stadium would be roughly as tall as the adjacent Mahaffey Theater and not out of scale, and fixtures such as the Saturday Morning Market and the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would not be affected.
It's hard to make significant changes to St. Petersburg's treasured downtown waterfront, and that's by design. The Rowdies have a well-conceived plan to remake Al Lang Stadium into a home for a Major League Soccer franchise that would be an asset to the city and the entire region. Voter approval for moving forward would send a powerful message to MLS that this market is supportive and ready.
On the May 2 referendum question to St. Petersburg voters, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting yes.