by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies effort to win an expansion spot into Major League Soccer stayed on course Thursday thanks to a unanimous vote of approval from the St. Petersburg City Council which set a public referendum for May 2 to allow the team and city to negotiate a new 25-year lease agreement for Al Lang Stadium.
Rowdies Owner Bill Edwards is seeking the new use agreement as part of his proposal to expand Al Lang to 18,000 seats in order to meet the standards necessary move up to MLS. Edwards has pledged that the $80 million construction costs of the project and any fees required by MLS to join the league will be paid by the team’s ownership group.
It’s been smooth sailing so far for the Rowdies stadium expansion efforts. In both city council meetings addressing the matter, the majority of feedback from constituents has been positive. Former St. Petersburg Mayor and current President of the Edwards Group Rick Baker noted the backing from the community and the city sends an encouraging signal to the MLS offices, especially as other competing cities struggle to gain momentum with their stadium plans.
“What we want to make sure is that MLS is comfortable that the community is supportive and that we have the authority to go forward with this stadium,” Baker said. “So we want to make sure that tick box is filled by the time they make that decision.”
Before the vote, city council members also expressed full-throated confidence in the team’s bid and that the referendum would pass in their comments. With his colleague Council member Jim Kennedy sporting a Rowdies scarf in the seat next to him, Council member Charlie Gerdes made his certainty in the city’s MLS prospects clear.
“I’m happy to vote yes,” Gerdes stated. “This vote is gonna pass, the referendum is gonna pass, and if MLS is smart they’ll do the right thing. Let’s go.”
Even the few who voiced concerns over the team’s proposal were not against the idea of expanding Al Lang outright. Most sought assurances that the city council would keep their worries over noise from potential concerts at the venue in mind when negotiating the new use agreement with the Rowdies.
Council member Steve Kornell explained that not every possible use of an expanded Al Lang could be outlined in the 75-word referendum, but stressed that the city would work to strike a balance in the new use agreement to ensure the residents in the area aren’t overlooked.
Directly addressing one of the concerned residents, Council member Kennedy said, “We can stop noise at 10 o’clock. We can do things that address the peace and serenity and tranquility of the people who love St Petersburg. We can work that out, and we will. We will listen. I don’t want you to leave here today thinking you were not listened to.”
Mayor Rick Kriseman was also on hand to show he’s behind the May referendum passing. After commending the Rowdies on their work putting together a proposal that aligns with the vision of the city’s waterfront, the mayor underscored that the referendum is about allowing the discussion to evolve, not approving a final deal.
“This referendum does not approve an agreement,” Kriseman explained. “It simply allows that ability to negotiate an agreement. That agreement that gets negotiated then still has to come in front of city council and there will be multiple opportunities for public input regarding the terms of that agreement, and then council still has to approve that agreement with a super majority. This is simply allowing us to have the discussion and to take it to a step that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do. I strongly encourage the public to be supportive of this referendum on May 2.”
If the message that the Rowdies are open to working with the city to take the residents around Al Lang into consideration hadn’t gotten through yet, Edwards himself made it plain that concerts will not be a frequent occurrence after the expansion.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to make everyone in the community happy with everything that’s going on here,” the Rowdies owner said. “There’s only been two concerts in the whole time we’ve had the Rowdies, just for the record. In the use agreement I have now, I have to have ten non-soccer events, so I’ve been forced to put in some things I didn’t want but maybe I needed to fill the gap. Our goal is to play soccer and use the stadium for that. We don’t want to do anything to hurt our neighbors.”
Mail ballots for the military and other overseas voters will go out on March 17. The rest of the mail ballots will go out on March 28. No early voting will be held for the special election. The deadline to register to vote before the referendum is April 3.