In front of a packed room at City Hall, the St. Pete City Council unanimously approved the ordinance that would create a referendum on extending the existing Al Lang Stadium lease. Currently managed by Big 3 Entertainment, the group owned by local multimillionaire Bill Edwards, Al Lang stadium is in year 3 of a 5 year lease with the city of St. Petersburg. Bound by the city charter, all waterfront leases are limited to 5 years, but this referendum would make an exception solely for Al Lang Stadium, and primarily for the purpose of Major League Soccer, pending the approval of expansion by the league. This would increase the standing lease from 5 years, to 25 years, but the specific language has yet to be worked out. What this vote meant, in essence, is the ability of the voters themselves to decide whether or not the Rowdies and Edwards would be able to have lengthy control of the stadium.
The numbers spent by the Edwards Group have been staggering. While $4m is the number bandied about publicly, the real number, including improvements made to the turf when the St. Pete Baseball Commission was still the managing entity and the Rowdies were simply a tenant, is closer to $6 million annually. Previous to the Edwards Group taking over, the City of St. Petersburg committed an annual subsidy of $1 million dollars, not including supplementals, paid directly to the St. Pete Baseball Commission since 2009. In 2014, the Edwards Group successfully lobbied the St. Pete City Council to change management from the SPBBC to Big 3, at no cost to the city. Additionally, Edwards has paid $270,543 towards the special referendum. He further pledges to spend an estimated $80 million dollars in construction costs for the renovation and upgrade of the stadium, in addition to the $150 million in MLS expansion fees. The current payroll for the Rowdies is unknown, but in the NASL it was estimated close to $4 million, and will most likely come close to $2 million in the USL. Travel and operational costs are also not disclosed, but the Charlotte Independence have disclosed a 2016 deficit of about $2.2 million dollars annually.
Public discussion on the issue was positive from those who took to the dais to speak, with those in favor outnumbering those against by a margin of 21 to 4. Notable organizations like the Visit St. Pete Clearwater, local merchant service provider FIS, the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, Tallahassee based lobbyist group Florida Sports Foundation, and local printing company Florida Print Solutions, all came out to speak in favor of the ordinance. After public comments were heard, council members Charlie Gerdes, Amy Foster, Ed Montanari, Steve Kornell, Darden Rice and mayor Rick Kriseman all spoke glowingly in favor of not just the ordinance, but the overall initiative to bring MLS to the city. When the final tally was counted, the vote passed unanimously, 8-0 in favor of the ordinance. Next up is the actual public vote on May 2nd, 2017 to decide the fate of the stadium lease. If that referendum passes by a simple majority (51%), then the city and the Tampa Bay Rowdies will begin negotiations on the lease, including parking and additional uses of the stadium. No timeline has been set yet, as MLS has yet to announce who the next round of expansion teams will be. However, the passage of this referendum could significantly influence the decisions of the league, and give St. Pete and the Rowdies the inside track on spot #24.
But numbers 25 to 28 (and beyond) are still up in the air.