ST. PETERSBURG — It's official. Starting today, businessman Bill Edwards will take over management of Al Lang Stadium, the home turf for his soccer team, the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Edwards has pledged to spend $1.5 million to fix up the aging downtown stadium and will control the facility for the next four years in a deal the City Council approved 7-1 on Thursday.
"I came to the conclusion this is overwhelmingly a win-win-win," said council member Darden Rice, following remarks by some lamenting the end of baseball at the storied stadium. "I think this is a new day for the city. That death kind of happened a while ago.
"Soccer is alive and kicking."
Edwards has been trying for months to wrest control of Al Lang from the city's current management contractor, the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission, which he has long criticized because of conditions at the facility.
The deal calls for the baseball commission to continue to manage the city's Walter Fuller sports complex.
Edwards has accused the commission of mismanagement and said baseball's presence at Al Lang is hurting the Rowdies. He sued the commission earlier this year.
The new management deal ends the lawsuit, which was important to the city, said Joe Zeoli, who is in charge of downtown enterprise facilities.
While the deal itself was public, the settlement of the lawsuit will remain secret. That has irked some council members.
"Why is this confidential if these are two public assets?" council member Wengay Newton said.
Council member Steve Kornell said he understands the reasons for secret settlements, but doesn't like it.
"Frankly, I just find it laughable that we got this on Monday, and if we don't do it (now) it's going to cause business disruption," Kornell said of the deal, which was proposed, then scrapped, then revived over the past few weeks. "I understand it, I just don't like it. I think if people want to do business with the city it's not a private deal. I appreciate everyone involved in this, I'm just not there yet."
Kornell also wants assurance the Saturday Morning Market, which operates in the stadium's parking lot, would be protected.
Zeoli assured the council that while the city will give up some parking revenue to Edwards under the deal, the city will still control and manage the lot. The city currently makes about $20,000 a year from that. Given that Edwards is putting so much more into capital improvements, officials were fine with surrendering that money, Zeoli said.
The baseball commission also asked the city to continue giving it a $200,000 annual subsidy even though it will be managing one less facility, and the city agreed, Zeoli said.
While the majority of the council seemed comfortable with the deal, some people inside the council chambers on Thursday were not.
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Developer Dan Harvey encouraged council members to view the Al Lang deal as a short-term solution, and highlighted the importance of the ongoing waterfront plan, which is expected to give guidance about the future of the site.
Community activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter chastised the council for bowing to pressure from Edwards. She said she shares Kornell's concerns that the Saturday Morning Market could eventually find itself out of favor with whatever plans Edwards has for the stadium.
"I have sat here 20 years and watched you allow big business to manipulate us," she said. "Call it what it is. It's Rick Baker and Bill Edwards … why can't we all get along? Why do you have to go and do a back room deal?"
After the vote, Edwards said he was pleased. Soccer is here to stay, he said, and it is the norm for teams to control their stadiums. He said he and the baseball commission have let "bygones be bygones."
He didn't go into details about all the improvements he plans to make but said a new scoreboard is definitely in order.
Baseball will continue to be remembered at the stadium, Edwards said, noting that what happens to the site after four years will be up to the waterfront master plan.
"I think it's going to be a great place for people to congregate," he said. "Citizens have a million and a half reasons they should be happy."
Contact Kameel Stanley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.