Editorial: A bold plan to bring MLS soccer to St. Petersburg

The proposal for the soccer stadium, shown in a rendering, adds 12,000 seats, at left, to the current 6,000.
The proposal for the soccer stadium, shown in a rendering, adds 12,000 seats, at left, to the current 6,000.
Published Dec. 7, 2016

St. Petersburg businessman and Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards has grand plans for his team and the downtown waterfront. Edwards would privately finance construction of a compact, attractive soccer stadium on the site of Al Lang Stadium, once the venerable home of spring training baseball, after acquiring a Major League Soccer franchise. It's an exciting proposal that could usher in a new chapter for this storied site, fit nicely with St. Petersburg's urban renaissance and enhance the entire region's profile in professional sports.

At a news conference/pep rally on Tuesday night, Edwards announced plans to seek a Major League Soccer franchise and, once that's in hand, build a new soccer stadium on the Al Lang site. The 18,000-seat stadium (6,000 seats in the current stadium and 12,000 new seats) would be roughly no taller than the neighboring Mahaffey Theater, the city owned venue, which Edwards also runs, and could cost about $80 million. It would not extend into the bay or affect existing streets, smart design features that respect the confines of the site. Nearly a decade ago, the Tampa Bay Rays proposed a new baseball stadium on this same site, but it had a bigger footprint and more seats -- and would have required disrupting the street grid and adding roughly a half-acre of fill into the bay. The Rays also wanted a significant investment of public money, and Edwards would privately finance the soccer stadium. A new soccer stadium that enhances the waterfront without leaning on taxpayers is an intriguing possibility and a huge commitment by Edwards, and residents should tune in to the discussion.

A new stadium, even a privately funded one, can't be built on this waterfront site without voter approval. That's an important requirement that ensures public control and protects the waterfront from development. Edwards acknowledges that requirement and shows respect for the process. At the news conference, he said he won't seek to get a referendum on the city ballot until he has secured the MLS expansion franchise. That's the right order, and it means voters probably would not see a referendum before August at the earliest. It would be a tough sell to ask voters to okay a stadium for a franchise that has not been awarded, regardless of the popularity of the Rowdies. Voters also will have more to consider than just the view or the long-term viability of a Major League Soccer franchise, which could cost Edwards from $150 million to $200 million. The Saturday Morning Market is an immensely popular attraction that takes place in the parking lot of Al Lang. The market and similar community activities should be part of the broader plan for the district, and the city should work with Edwards to make that happen.

That said, Major League Soccer would fit nicely in St. Petersburg, and Edwards hopes to begin play as early as 2019. Orlando City, the closest MLS club, could present problems over territorial rights. But those should be solvable given the instant — and commercially valuable — rivalry that would emerge between the two clubs. And at 18,000 seats, Edwards' stadium would be on the small end of new American soccer stadiums. That's not a bad thing, and it reflects a realistic, viable vision for the market.

There are plenty of details to get right and in the proper order: A strong show of community support (#MLS2StPete), detailed stadium plans, a franchise in hand, city approvals and a voter referendum. But a Major League Soccer team would be a welcome new player in the regional sports scene and another great draw for a vibrant downtown that is increasingly attractive to millennials. By moving carefully on this ambitious proposal, investing his own money and including the public along the way, Edwards has opened the door to a wonderful opportunity for St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay.