The Tampa Bay Rowdies’ initiative to renovate Al Lang Stadium to fit Major League Soccer’s requirements cleared its first speed bump Thursday as St. Petersburg City Council approved the first reading of a ballot question that would be posed to the city's voters on the issue.
The handshakes and smiles began before the meeting even started. Spirits were high and so was support for the referendum, which would allow a special election to be held on May 2 to determine whether or not the city will enter into a 25-year agreement with Bill Edwards, owner of the Rowdies, who has pledged to carry out the upgrade using his own money. Edwards plans on funding renovations that will upgrade the stadium to the required minimum of 18,000 seats, more than doubling its capacity.
Several St. Petersburg organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, local small businesses who gave credit to the Rowdies for increases in profits and residents from downtown urged council to move forward in the referendum process.
“Having an MLS team in St. Petersburg is a perfect match for the changing demographics as well as the growing recognition … as an international destination,” Gina Driscoll, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Neighborhood Association, said. “We are grateful for the thoughtful planning that everyone put into it … as well as the stadium and franchise fees being self-financed. We need to take advantage of that.”
Several more organizations and about a dozen Tampa Bay Rowdies fans heaped praise on the potential project, including, even, some who had opposed moving the Tampa Bay Rays to the city's downtown waterfront.
“The stadium clears all previous objections to the Rays stadium,” Hal Freedman, founder of St. Pete Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront—which opposed the waterfront stadium idea, said. “They’ve got their act together.”
The reasons he sees the soccer stadium project differently, he said, are myraid. It does not exceed the height of the Mahaffee theater, and it fits in the current footprint of the stadium.
Though, not all in attendance supported the plans.
Downtown residents such as Gill Gentry raised legitimate concerns regarding excess traffic and the logistics of “masses of people” converging on the stadium site. He added that it's “not feasible” financially to accommodate nearly 20,000 fans on a regular basis. Other residents rallied around concerns of noise pollution, too many other events at the stadium, and concern over whether other types of events would take place at the facility.
Councilman Charlie Gerdes’ sought to allay these concerns by amending the resolution, assuring the stadium’s “primary purpose will not be its sole purpose.”
As for traffic and parking, Councilman Steve Kornell said, the city will be able to handle it just as it does other attractions that have sprung up throughout the city.
“Our downtown didn’t happen by accident … The idea that we’re not going to be able to manage parking or whatever, I just don’t see that. Our staff is very good at what they do,” he said.
Council unanimously passed the resolution, but that was just the first reading.
A second reading of the ordinance will take place on March 2, here council will likely replicate Wednesday’s meeting with a reading, public comment and approval. Once the second approval comes, Edwards will pony up the nearly $250,000 it takes to hold such an election. The election would be held on May 2 and will then determine the fate of Al Lang, which will also determine the fate of the Rowdies’ future in MLS.
No stadium means no MLS, which would crush the dreams of the Bay Area’s most passionate fans.
“I went to my first Rowdies game was when I was nine in 1975,” Rowdies super fan Nancy Bataille, who grew up in Pinellas County. “I decided to move back to St. Pete after I lived in Pasco County for nine years only because the Rowdies moved to St. Petersburg [in 2011].”
Bataille added that she retired from her former job as a veterinary tech to become the club’s retail manager.
Edwards Group president and former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker was pleased with the meeting’s successes.
“I’m very happy. We got a lot of support from the community. I think there’s an enthusiasm building out in the city for the Rowdies. It’s a good time to be in St. Pete,” Baker said.