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Easy call: St. Pete Cty Council to set Al Lang referendum

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

If all issues before the St. Petersburg City Council were as easy as the once members will consider Thursday morning, anyone could do the job.

The Council has a vote scheduled to set a referendum on a plan to privately renovate Al Lang Stadium. That’s so a bid by Tampa Bay Rowdies’ owner Bill Edwards to obtain a Major League Soccer franchise for the city can continue.

If the vote is anything but yes, the Council will have lost an opportunity that likely will never come again. A “no” vote also would prove members have lost their minds.

Even though Edwards would pay the $80 million stadium renovation, the city wisely requires voter approval of anything on this scale that goes along St. Petersburg’s lovely waterfront.

(For what it’s worth, Edwards also has said he will pay the cost of the proposed May 2 special referendum).

There is no risk for voters.

The Rowdies already play at Al Lang as members of the United Soccer League. Edwards’ plan to renovate Al Lang into an 18,000-seat stadium worthy of the much more prestigious MLS hinges on the Rowdies becoming one of four expansion teams the league plans to add as soon as August. His plan wouldn’t even enlarge the downtown stadium footprint that already exists.

If the city’s bid is not successful, there will be no renovation.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said cities interested in expansion must meet three key criteria:

— A strong local ownership group that has the money to invest in infrastructure and build the sport in their market. Edwards certainly checks that box.

— A market that has shown strong fan support for soccer and located in a desirable spot. That box gets checked with a giant Magic Marker.

— A stadium plan that league calls “a proper home for their fans and players while also serving as a destination for the sport in the community.”

Check. Check. Check.

While St. Petersburg has struggled to support the Tampa Bay Rays, this is a different animal. MLS teams play only a 34-game season, which means 17 home games versus 81 for the Rays. That makes individual games more of an event than a single baseball game.

The Rowdies were third last year in attendance among 12 North American Soccer League teams, averaging about 5,800 fans per game. Edwards already has sounded the bugle charge to the business community and others about greatly increasing that total if the MLS lands here.

I believe the support will be there.

I believe St. Petersburg is a perfect spot for an MLS team and Edwards has a strong plan to make it happen.

All that Council members need to do is say yes to keep this moving forward.

Easy call.

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Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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