by JAKE NUTTING
The ordinance calling for a public referendum to allow the Tampa Bay Rowdies and city of St. Petersburg to negotiate a new 25-year use agreement to manage Al Lang Stadium as part of the team’s bid to win an expansion spot in Major League Soccer took an important step on Thursday.
St. Petersburg’s city council unanimously voted to approve the language for the ordinance, paving the way for a public hearing and possible adoption on March 2. Should the ordinance be approved, a referendum on the new use agreement at Al Lang would be scheduled for May 2.
During the open forum discussion of the meeting, the majority of speakers voiced support for the ordinance moving forward. Those in favor included team supporters, local sponsors of the team, as well as representatives from the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Partnership and the Downtown Neighborhood Association.
Rowdies fan and St. Petersburg resident Mike Pendleton noted how the Rowdies have helped strengthened his family’s roots to the area after arriving over ten years ago.
“Even though we’ve been here for 12 years, I think when we stumbled upon the Rowdies four years ago it has probably one of the biggest things that has made St Petersburg feel like a home for our family,” said Pendleton. “It’s not just going to the games every Saturday in the spring, fall and the summer. It’s also the folks that you meet along the way. There’s a tremendous amount of support for the Rowdies in the community. It’s a special part of the community. My son is coached by a former player. So there’s a lot of reasons why I think the Rowdies mean an awful lot to this community, and the history of the Rowdies means a lot to this community.”
The Rowdies’s proposal also received support from a surprising source. As a founding member of the group Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront, Hal Freedman played an important role in squashing the Tampa Bay Rays’ plan to construct a new stadium at the Al Lang site nearly a decade ago. Now Freedman is offering his backing of the plan put forth by the Rowdies.
“The Rowdies proposal for an MLS team takes care of almost all of the objections we had to [the Rays’ plan],” said Freedman. “It’s half the size, there’s no taxpayer money involved, it’s the height of the Mahaffey rather than a 325 ft high sail. They pulled it together and I think it just makes a lot of sense for downtown.”
Freedman, however, did note reservations about Al Lang becoming a regular host to concerts after the stadium expansion. Three speakers at Thursday’s meeting came out against the referendum, echoing Freedman’s worry about the noise pollution from concerts but also questioning if the downtown area is capable of handling the amount of people an 18,000-seat Al Lang Stadium would bring.
After listening the concerns, Council member Charlie Gerdes successfully changed the ballot language of the potential referendum to convey to voters that soccer will not be the sole use of the expanded Al Lang.
Former Mayor of St. Petersburg and current President of the Edwards Group Rick Baker informed the city council the team would be open to discussing the issue of limiting the amount of concerts and other events during the negotiations for the new use agreement should the referendum pass. Currently there is no cap on how many concerts Rowdies Owner Bill Edwards can host at Al Lang. Instead, the present lease agreement has a minimum requirement of non-soccer events that he must bring to Al Lang every year.
As far as the logistics of managing 18,000 people flooding in the downtown area, Council member Steve Kornell took issue with the comments from those who believed the city was incapable of handling the foot traffic or parking issues. He touted the city’s staff and its ability pull off events such as the city’s annual Grand Prix event.
A point of contention between some of the speakers in the meeting was whether the team’s stadium proposal fits with what the Downtown Waterfront Master Plan (DWMP) created through years of work proposed for Al Lang. Many said the plan laid out by the Rowdies jibes perfectly with the suggestions made for the Al Lang site in the DWMP, but one resident stated his understanding was that plan never called for a stadium the size of the one the Rowdies hope to have.
The exact wording of the section of the Al Lang section in the DWMP leaves room for interpretation, though it is clear that it calls for redevelopment and for the area to remain a destination for sports.
From the DWMP:
The Al Lang Stadium block, from 2nd Ave. S to 4th Ave. SE, should also be redeveloped with sports associated program, and ancillary retail and commercial uses. This concept has many site design issues that will require creative solutions to realize the goal of a vibrant, walkable mixed-use area.
While sympathetic to the issue of protecting the city’s waterfront, Council chairwoman Darden Rice expressed a belief that the proposal from the Rowdies to stay within the current footprint of Al Lang and upgrade the stadium honors the sporting legacy of the site.
“The founders of the city never had in mind for the downtown waterfront park system to be nothing but green space and passive parks, said Rice. “That’s why the Al Lang stadium is there, which you all know has served our community for a little over 60 years as a baseball stadium.
“I’m sensitive to the comments that were made earlier about the concern of the number of seats and the number of people that will be brought into the area, but I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to think that a baseball stadium that was built in 1947 with 7,500 seats would someday in the year 2017 be a more modernized stadium that would seat more people.”