1. Opinion

Editorial: St. Petersburg voters should back soccer referendum

More than 23,000 St. Petersburg voters already have cast ballots in today's referendum on allowing the city to negotiate a long-term lease for a new waterfront stadium if the Tampa Bay Rowdies win a Major League Soccer franchise. Rowdies owner Bill Edwards would pay for the expansion franchise and an 18,000-seat stadium on the Al Lang Stadium site, and there is no downside to allowing this effort to move forward. City voters who have yet to cast ballots should go to the polls today and send a strong signal that St. Petersburg wants an MLS franchise.

Even with a favorable vote, MLS in Tampa Bay isn't a lock. St. Petersburg is competing with about a dozen cities for four new franchises, and a "yes'' vote on the stadium would strengthen the Rowdies' bid. Edwards proposes building an $80 million stadium on the existing footprint of Al Lang using only private money. The design preserves open views of the water, does not disrupt existing streets and is similar in height to neighboring Mahaffey Theater. The ballot language guarantees no public money would go toward the new stadium or the purchase of an MLS franchise, estimated at $150 million. As required by the City Charter for long-term leases on public waterfront land, voters are being asked 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. If St. Petersburg is not awarded a franchise, no stadium would be built.

Edwards and his staff ran an inclusive campaign to win residents' support and address concerns in the run-up to the vote. Parking, noise and light pollution from games and other events at the new stadium are genuine quality of life issues to downtown residents. The team has cited a parking study that identified nearly 5,000 public parking spaces available downtown after the stadium fills up during a home game. The stadium design uses directional lighting and sound technology to limit the impact on neighbors. Popular events like the Saturday Morning Market and the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would be protected. There is no significant organized opposition to this idea, only some questions, such as how many non-soccer events would be held in the stadium. Fine-tuning those and other details will fall to city officials in negotiating the lease, another crucial step in this process that would need approval by six of eight City Council members.

Edwards' plans for the Rowdies are ambitious but viable. Home games now draw about 5,500 fans per game, and attendance has risen steadily since Edwards bought the team in 2013. The Rowdies have carved a niche among Tampa Bay sports fans whose attention and dollars are already in high demand with three other major league sports franchises in the area.

Now part of the United Soccer League, the Rowdies are vying to join the top tier of U.S. professional soccer. Their potential move also presents an exciting opportunity for St. Petersburg that would enhance the city's treasured downtown waterfront. Voter approval would send a strong signal that the region is ready for Major League Soccer.