by JAKE NUTTING

The Tampa Bay Rowdies’ campaign to move up to Major League Soccer continued to chug along on Tuesday as St. Petersburg residents voted to allow the team and city to negotiate a new 25-year use agreement for Al Lang Stadium. A longterm deal is a necessary part of the team’s proposal to privately fund an  $80 million expansion of the venue in order to bring it up to MLS’s level.

Rowdies Owner Bill Edwards missed Tuesday’s election victory party at Al Lang  due to medical leave to have a pacemaker installed, but he expressed his happiness with the result in a statement.

“I am grateful to the citizens of St. Petersburg for passing this important referendum,” said Edwards. “St. Petersburg is very protective of our incredibly valuable waterfront – as is appropriate. We have put together a stadium plan that enhances our downtown, is of a scale that is respectful to our waterfront and does not burden the taxpayers.”

Early polls indicated the referendum was expected to pass, though the recent setback for St. Louis’ MLS expansion effort in which the group’s stadium proposal was shot down in a narrow vote gave pause to even the most confident backer of Tampa Bay’s plan. Unlike Edwards’ bid, St. Louis’ group was seeking public funds for its stadium.

Tuesday’s result was overwhelmingly in favor of allowing the team to seek a new use agreement and move ahead with its MLS ambitions. 87 percent of just under 28,217 ballots cast approved the referendum.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor — and current President of the Edwards Group — Rick Baker took the stage of Tuesday’s watch party to celebrate the referendum’s approval together.

“In approving this referendum, voters have not only expressed their support for a longer term agreement at Al Lang Stadium, but have sent a strong message that St. Pete and the entire region are excited about the prospect of the Rowdies joining MLS,” said Kriseman. “The Rowdies’ future in the Sunshine City has never been brighter.”

St. Petersburg’s City Council will still need to sign off on whatever deal the Rowdies and the Mayor’s office produces. Any deal reached would also be contingent on the team being awarded an MLS franchise. If the Rowdies are not one of the four expansion contenders selected, the planned renovations will not materialize and the use agreement will be nullified.

“I am thrilled with the outcome of the referendum,” said City Council Chairwoman Darden Rice. “This truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our city. Our message to MLS is simple: we want you in St. Pete!”

A shovel ready stadium plan would give the Rowdies a leg up on many of their expansion competitors, though MLS will also evaluate other criteria when selecting its next two teams this year and then two more next year. The structure of the ownership group and a market’s dynamics to support the sport will also be considered. Edwards mentioned in January that he has held talks with a handful of investors — both local and out of state — about joining the ownership group, but the team has been quiet about the issue since. Edwards has stated that no matter who comes on board, he intends to remain the team’s principal owner.

MLS released the following stadium shortly after the referendum’s passage was official.

“We are pleased that the people of St. Petersburg support the Rowdies proposal to renovate Al Lang Stadium. Bill Edwards personally came to our offices in January to submit his expansion application and share his vision. With the passage of the stadium vote, we look forward to working with the Rowdies as they continue to pursue a Major League Soccer team for Tampa Bay.”

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