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Former St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker fields Rowdies stadium questions

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rowdies took the team's quest for a long-term lease agreement at Al Lang Stadium to neighborhood leaders Wednesday.

The team's campaign in preparation for a May 2 citywide vote included a video, flyers and refrigerator magnets to help woo the small crowd at the Council of Neighborhood Associations' (CONA) monthly meeting.

The team's goal is to convince St. Petersburg voters to let the city negotiate a lease of up to 25 years for the waterfront stadium, which Rowdies owner Bill Edwards wants to renovate for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.

It's been the task of former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, president of the Edwards Group, to sell the idea. He's been making the rounds of neighborhood groups. Wednesday he wove a tale of history, interspersed with mentions of his family and reminders of his tenure as mayor.

There were questions.

How long will the stadium renovations take? About 18 months to two years, Baker said. What about those blinding lights that shine into downtown condominiums? The architects will address that with directed LED lights. Will the stadium be able to accommodate baseball? No, think rugby, football or even cricket. What about jobs? There will be plenty of construction jobs. And, mentioning the city's sewer problems, one man wanted to know whether there would be anything in the team's lease requiring that the city not reopen the nearby Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility.

"I'm not sure I'd be against reopening it. I'm not sure why we closed it in the first place," Baker said.

Earlier, the former mayor set the stage for his pitch. He spoke of neighborhoods as being "the strength of the city," talked about what it was like when he arrived in St. Petersburg in the 1980's and fast-forwarded to the present day emergence of "the coolest downtown."

The Rowdies, he promised, will enhance that success that developed "bit by bit to create what we have today. That's what the Rowdies can be a part of," he told those gathered in the auditorium at the Sunshine Center.

"The Rowdies can be one of the things in the city that just provides another activity for people to enjoy," he said.

Before Edwards bought the team, which had been in financial straits, he had never been to a soccer match, Baker said.

"The first time that Bill Edwards ever attended a soccer match was when he owned the team," he said, adding that his boss is now a fan and intimately involved with the team.

Now he wants to get the team into the MLS.

"In order to do that, you have to have a stadium with at least 18,000 seats," he said.

So the Rowdies plan to add 18,000 seats and upgrade the historic stadium within its current footprint. The $80 million renovation will be financed by Edwards, who is also paying for the special election, which will cost $270,542.

Success of the May 2 referendum — a city charter requirement for long-term leases of public downtown waterfront property — would allow city officials to negotiate the desired lease. Any agreement, though, would have to be approved by a supermajority City Council vote and would be contingent on the team actually being awarded an MLS franchise.

Twelve teams are competing for four MLS expansion franchises, Baker said. Two franchises could be decided within a few months.

Baker said MLS officials also are looking for strong community support. The Rowdies have that, he said, adding that over 200 businesses have committed to support the team, including HSN, Raymond James and Jabil.

Someone wanted to know, what would happen to the stadium at the end of 25 years?

The city would own it, Baker said, but "the team may want to re-up."

He said that the Rowdies had worked with various community groups, including the Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg — which scuttled a proposed Pier redesign they said was unsuitable for the waterfront — and Preserve Our Waterfront and Wallets, which fought a proposed waterfront baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The team, which has already hired an architect, wants the stadium to fit the scale of the city and adhere to the city's Downtown Waterfront Master Plan, Baker said.

Will Michaels, a former CONA president, said he was pleased.

"I do want to acknowledge your sensitivity to the downtown waterfront parks," he said.

There were questions about noise. District 6 City Council candidate Corey Givens Jr. wanted to know whether the team would support the local hiring ordinance. Baker said he couldn't answer that question. Disston Heights Civic Association president Jennifer Joern wanted to know about accommodations for bikes. His administration created the city's bike trails, Baker said.

But there was one question he skirted. Was he running again for mayor?

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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