by JAKE NUTTING
Edwards Group President Rick Baker spoke with The Unused Substitutes the morning following the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ resounding referendum win to set the stage for a longterm use agreement and renovation project at Al Lang Stadium as part of the team’s effort to join Major League Soccer. The following is a transcript of the interview (also available to listen to on this week’s podcast episode), which has been edited only for clarity.
Congratulations on the big win after a long campaign and all the work that went into it.
Thank you, it was a great campaign. It was really more of a grassroots campaign, but I would call it even more a discussion with the community in the end. I was surprised. I felt pretty good about where we were going, but I never dreamed we would get 87 percent. So we’re very, very pleased with the outcome.
What resulted in the big turnout in your favor and what kind of message does it send about the group’s bid?
When we started to develop the stadium plan, we tried to approach the groups that would be most impacted or interested in it. We did that during the time we were developing the stadium plan itself. So they actually had input in what that should be and what it would look like and how it addresses their concerns. Along the way we tried to address concerns that people might have — are going beyond the current site, intruding on sidewalks, are we getting too tall, do we have the configuration right, all those things.
At the end of the day, it really became the community’s plan. We went to 50 neighborhood associations, business groups and civic groups around the city, and we described to them what we were doing, answered their questions. I think it’s that kind of community discussion we had is really the reason for it. Then I would just say there is this great, growing enthusiasm for the Rowdies and the city. It turned out great. It’s a great statement by the community, a great statement to MLS.
Do you have a timetable for when negotiations with the city for the new use agreement might start?
We probably won’t do the use agreement until the expansion franchise is awarded. I believe that is everyone’s intent. Bill Edwards is not in right now, so I’d have to talk to him about it, but I believe that’s the way it would go. We would go from here to the MLS award and then we would finalize the documents for the city.
Where does the group’s focus shift to now that the referendum has gone in your favor?
It’s really a continued focus. We have fairly regular discussions with MLS officials about where we stand and if there are there any issues that we need to address. I think the best thing we can be doing now is continue having a dialogue with MLS to make sure that we’re addressing any issues or questions they have to put us in the best position we can for the franchise.
What are some of those issues you’re talking with MLS about?
I think clarification on all issues. Their main issues are of course the stadium. We continue to have discussions with them about what the stadium is going to be like. They’ll have specific questions about the timing, how long it will take us to build it. A lot of it has to do with the stadium because that’s obviously important to them. Of course up until this point we’ve been keeping them abreast on the status of the referendum because they know that’s a critical moment in the whole project as we’re pushing it forward. Whatever comes up that they have an interest in, that’s what we’re gonna talk to them about.
Bill Edwards mentioned a few months ago he was speaking with a number of investors about joining the expansion group? Where do things stand in that process?
I would say he continues to do that. He’s actually kind of expanded the number of people that he’s talking to, and those discussions obviously are also important to the overall bid. They continue and I expect they might continue on an even broader basis now that we’ve had so much success on the referendum.
Has the idea of MLS officially entering Miami potentially hurting the Rowdies’ bid ever come up in research or conversations?
None that I’ve had. I really don’t believe it has an impact on us. I saw one reporter write that it’s about the same distance from Washington D.C. to New York. So I just don’t think that decision impacts our decision. Orlando has been brought up often, but Commissioner Garber has made it very clear that he doesn’t see that as an impediment, and in actuality he sees that as a positive thing because of the rivalry we could be building between St. Petersburg and Orlando on the I-4 corridor.
Have you spoken with Bill Edwards about the referendum yet and is there a timetable for his return to the team from medical leave?
Well, timetable to return to the team… I don’t think Bill every really leaves [laughs]. He may not be in the locker room, but he doesn’t really leave. In terms of when he’s going to be up and about, I don’t think it’s going to be very long. I don’t have a specific amount of time for it. I did chat with him last night, he was very excited about the referendum. He asked me to reach out and thank everybody involved for the awesome effort. I think that everybody is pleased about the enormity of the victory.
What’s the message to the fans about how everyone can keep the momentum of the bid going?
Best thing fans can do is come to the games. You can still buy partial season tickets for the rest of the season. So people just need to keep coming to the games and filling up the stadium because the more enthusiasm we have, of course that continues to help us as we go forward.
IMAGE, MATT MAY/TAMPA BAY ROWDIES