Report: Spring Referendum on Al Lang Lease Extension a Possibility

by JAKE NUTTING

A vote to extend Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards’ lease to manage Al Lang Stadium could be coming sooner than expected.

Charlie Frago of the Tampa Bay Times reported on Thursday that St. Petersburg City Council Chairwoman Darden Rice has scheduled a meeting on January 5 to put the matter up for a public referendum in late April or early May, with Edwards picking up the $250,000 price tag for the special election. Edwards is seeking to secure at least a 20-year lease for the waterfront venue, a necessary step in his proposal to expand Al Lang to $18,000 seats as part of his bid join Major League Soccer.

Everything in the process is still dependent on the Rowdies being successful in their push for MLS. Edwards stated at the event announcing his MLS ambitions that the $80 million in private funds he has pledged to expand Al Lang will only come with a move to MLS. Rice made a similar ultimatum, stating that the city isn’t interested in negotiating a long-term lease at Al Lang if MLS isn’t part of the equation.

“We heard the exciting announcement weeks ago that the Rowdies were seeking MLS status,” Rice told the Times. “This referendum would authorize the city to negotiate a longer lease at Al Lang. Then council would still have discretion to discuss and approve that. And all of this is contingent strictly upon Edwards getting an MLS agreement. It absolutely would not extend to a lease extension for anything else. This is a great opportunity.”

The expedited timeline for a referendum is a surprise as early indications were that the earliest a vote would come was in August. The reasoning for speeding things up could have to do with MLS’ timeline for expansion decisions. The report notes that she understands MLS will pick its next two expansion teams in the spring, but MLS commissioner Don Garber told media members last week that an announcement for those two teams will be made in the third quarter of 2017.

MLS plans on expanding to 28 teams with four new teams and possibly David Beckham’s Miami team if the group ever secures a stadium deal. Edwards recently asserted his desire to join MLS in 2020 as either team 25 or 26. Sacramento and St. Louis are believed to be at the top of MLS’ current list for teams 25 and 26, while Detroit, San Antonio, Raleigh, Charlotte, San Diego, Cincinnati and Nashville are all also in the running with the Rowdies. No timetable has been announced for picking teams 27 and 28 yet.

The Rowdies and all other bidders must submit a formal expansion application to MLS by the end of January. Edwards is already scheduled to meet with MLS officials in January about his application.

Another interesting aspect to the report is Rice’s suggestion that the council consider using its leverage in the lease negotiations to stipulate the Rowdies drop Tampa Bay from their name and pick up St Pete instead.

It’s not the first time the idea of a name change has been floated. A well-known booster and philanthropist in St. Petersburg, Edwards even joked about the possibility at the press conference announcing he had town control of the team in late 2013. He may have even give the notion serious consideration at one point. Records with the U.S. patent office show Edwards filed a trademark for “St. Pete Rowdies” and “St. Petersburg Rowdies” just a week after purchasing the team. Both trademarks were abandoned by Edwards in February of this year, though.