St. Petersburg voters are well on their way to allowing city officials negotiate a 25-year lease with Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards to expand Al Lang Field capacity from its current 7,000 seating structure to 18,000.
With all 93 precincts reporting, the measure is cruising to victory, with 87 percent of residents voting “Yes” compared to 13 percent opposed.
A total of 24,589 voted in support of the measure, with only 3,628 against it; 28,217 ballots were cast in total.
Voter turnout was just under 17 percent — not shocking in a special election with just one issue on the ballot.
The soccer franchise needs that increase in seating capacity for eligibility to join Major League Soccer, the pre-eminent soccer league in America. Currently, the team plays in the United Soccer League.
The Rowdies are one of twelve soccer franchises hoping to join MLS within the next couple of years. The league is expected to announce two expansion teams before the end of 2017, and two more in the future. Construction would only move forward if the MLS chooses the Rowdies to join its league, followed up by a vote by the St. Petersburg City Council approving the expansion.
Although construction plans don’t call for expanding the stadium’s footprint, the St. Petersburg City Charter provides that any portion of the waterfront park property that is sold or leased for private use must be approved by the citizenry through a referendum.
“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 Tampa Bay Rowdies joining MLS,” Mayor Rick Kriseman said minutes after polls closed.
“The Rowdies’ future in the Sunshine City has never been brighter.”
There was little-to-no organized opposition to the measure, in part because it’s not expected to cost taxpayers a cent. Edwards has said that his company would foot the entire $80 million expenditure to upgrade the stadium. Edwards also paid for the $271,000 tab for the referendum.
As part of the 11th biggest media market in the nation, the largest market currently not in the MLS, the Rowdies should get a good look from MLS officials. But Florida Squeeze editor Kartik Krishnaiyer, who writes about soccer, recently declared that Rowdies are not a slam dunk to be invited by MLS.
“On the surface, Tampa Bay is the best market for MLS to grab. But there are drawbacks,” Krishnaiyer writes. “Firstly, MLS might prefer being on the Tampa side of the bay rather than in St. Petersburg. Secondly, the Rowdies proposal for renovation and expansion of Al Lang Stadium is quite frankly substandard by MLS standards. This is despite the fact that the vista where the stadium sits would arguably be the best in the league. Thirdly, Edwards himself is a wild card, unpredictable and in a league whose image-consciousness is often over-the-top, Edwards may not be a clean fit in MLS. Fourthly, MLS would be smart to want a “war on I-4” but perhaps they are fearful the Rowdies would cut into Orlando City’s supporter base.”
That “wild-card” image of Edwards is centered around a legal case over his now-defunct mortgage company, Mortgage Investors Corp., accused of cheating veterans and the public in refinancing VA loans.
“He feels there’s no merit to it and that he’s a veteran himself and he fought in Vietnam and was wounded in the hospital for two years,” said Edwards surrogate and former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker last week at a Suncoast Tiger Bay event. “He believes he’s going to prevail.”
For more than a month, Baker has been making the rounds advocating for the referendum, a campaign that many speculate is a prelude for his own plans to challenge incumbent Kriseman for mayor later this year.
Photos of the Rowdies vote celebration, and renderings of the upgraded Al Lang, are courtesy of the Tampa Bay Rowdies: