Another step toward an expansion of Al Lang Stadium could be taken today, as voters will decide whether to allow the Tampa Bay Rowdies to continue pursuing the plan.
Unveiled last December by Rowdies owner Bill Edwards, the proposal calls for Al Lang Stadium to be expanded as part of a renovation. With the $80 million project, the facility would be raised to MLS standards, and could allow the Rowdies to clinch a successful MLS expansion bid.
The renovation, if it moves forward, will be privately financed. This is what sets the referendum on Tuesday apart from other stadium-related ballot initiatives—including the one last month in St. Louis—as St. Petersburg voters will not be weighing in on funding, but rather the question of whether the city can pursue a long-term lease agreement with the Rowdies. Leases for city-owned waterfront properties in St. Petersburg must be limited to five years or be subject to referendum, giving voters a say in whether the city can strike an agreement of up to 25 years with the Rowdies.
Thus far, the proposal to expand Al Lang Stadium has not sparked much controversy. Edwards is paying the cost of the $280,000 special election, and the language of the referendum is such that the city is neither on the hook for the stadium project nor the $150 million expansion fee for joining MLS.
In a late March editorial, The Tampa Bay Times issued a recommendation for the plan. “The Rowdies have a well-conceived plan to remake Al Lang Stadium into a home for a Major League Soccer franchise that would be an asset to the city and the entire region,” the editorial stated. “Voter approval for moving forward would send a powerful message to MLS that this market is supportive and ready.”
Though there are no guarantees when it comes to what voters may decide, signs point to the outcome being favorable for the Rowdies. More from SI.com:
“At this point, there really is no organized opposition that I’m aware of,” said [Edwards Group president Rick] Baker, who was mayor from 2001 to 2010. “People have questions about whether we have sufficient parking. Have you accommodated the lighting? In order to deal with the condominiums surrounding the stadium, do we have transportation covered—those kinds of questions. So we wanted to get around and talk to people.”
The city has 168,000 eligible voters and nearly 22,000 ballots already have been sent in by mail. Saint Petersblog, a local news blog, conducted a poll in early April and reported that 70% of voters are expected to approve the referendum, with 19% opposing and 11% undecided.
“If we pass the referendum, there’s a high degree of certainty associated with our stadium plan. That’s a pretty good advantage we have in our corner,” Baker said.
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the proposal for Al Lang Stadium is what will happen after Tuesday. If voters approve, the Rowdies and the City of St. Petersburg will still need to come to terms on a lease, and the Times has previously reported that final approval will require a supermajority vote from the city council.
Furthermore, MLS will still have to decide whether it wants to expand to St. Petersburg. Being in Tampa Bay—the 11th largest television market in the country—could appeal to the league, but there are still 11 other bids on the table for just four spots. Ultimately, it may be the league that has the final say in whether Al Lang Stadium is expanded, as the plan is contingent on the Rowdies successfully securing an MLS expansion spot.
With other contenders still ironing out their bids, more developments will follow over the next several months as MLS officials draw closer to making their first decisions on expansion. That means that Tuesday is unlikely to provide immediate assurance that an Al Lang Stadium renovation will bring the league to Tampa Bay, but voter approval would ensure that the conversation continues.
RELATED STORIES: Tampa Bay Rowdies Look for Public Support; Al Lang Stadium Referendum Set for May 2; Al Lang Stadium Project Moves Closer to Referendum; City Council to Decide on Al Lang Stadium Referendum; St. Petersburg Mayor Meets with MLS; St. Petersburg Discusses Al Lang Stadium Proposal; Al Lang Stadium Plan Vying for Support; Al Lang Stadium Agreement Could Have Spring Referendum; Tampa Bay Rowdies Unveil Al Lang Stadium Renovation, MLS Campaign; Al Lang Stadium Renovation Talks Back at the Forefront; St. Pete Holds Off On Al Lang Stadium Upgrades
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