ST. PETERSBURG — A St. Petersburg professional sports franchise complaining about its city-owned stadium sure sounds familiar.
Only this time it's not the Tampa Bay Rays, but the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer club that is unhappy with its venue. In a letter to the city, Rowdies officials describe Al Lang Stadium as “dilapidated” and complain that the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission, a nonprofit group that manages the stadium, is failing to maintain the venue as required in its contract.
Complaints include mold in locker rooms, air-conditioning problems, weeds on the field, litter and debris in the dugouts and inadequate stadium lighting. Some 600 stadium seats are broken or “hazardous,” the letter states. Even the field mower is not working properly.
“We are a professional sports team; the conditions of the stadium truly need to come up to professional standards,” said Bill Edwards, St. Petersburg businessman and philanthropist who bought a controlling interest in the team in December. “It's certainly not acceptable at this moment.”
The letter, written by Rowdies attorney Wes Bailey, also hints that the team could move elsewhere if the commission and the city do not commit to stadium improvements.
“Although we are eager to remain at Al Lang Stadium, having invested half a million dollars in field-side, first-class seating, and for St. Petersburg to remain 'The home of the Rowdies,' we require an immediate commitment to rectify these serious deficiencies,” Bailey wrote.
Edwards backed away from that statement Monday, saying he “will fight” to keep the team in St. Petersburg.
The baseball commission has managed Al Lang Stadium and the Walter Fuller Baseball Complex in the west of the city since 2010. Roughly $100,000 per year of city money goes toward repairs and maintenance of the two facilities.
Prior to that, the city paid $1 million a year to the Rays, which used the stadium for spring training until transferring its preseason operations to Port Charlotte.
Commission Director Steve Nadel said he was surprised at the aggressiveness of the letter. Other professional sports teams who recently used the stadium, including the Toronto Blue Jays, were happy with it, he said.
“The negative parts directed at us are false and untrue,” he said. “Other groups that have been there play at a higher professional level than the Rowdies.”
Joe Zeoli, managing director of the city development administration, said the mold and damp was the result of torrential rain during the 2013 soccer season, which runs from April through November. Pictures submitted by the Rowdies to the city show damp on inside walls and floors.
He said the city and the commission already have begun to address some of the issues.
That includes establishing an operational group with representatives from the city, the commission and the Rowdies to address the issues.
“We always take seriously the concerns of our tenants, whether it's the Rowdies or the Rays,” Zeoli said.
Built in 1977, the stadium's last major refurbishment was the late 1990s and it needs substantial investment to modernize it, Zeoli said.
But that is unlikely to happen until the city completes its downtown waterfront master plan, a document intended to be a blueprint for future development along the city's signature shoreline.
Al Lang is likely to feature heavily in the final document. In a study of the city's waterfront, the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit group regarded as a center of excellence in planning and land-use, recommended razing the stadium and replacing it with a generic sports complex.
“We need to wait a little bit to see what the community is looking for, then we'll be in a position to make a longer investment in Al Lang Stadium,” Zeoli said. “If that facility is going to be there for the long term then we need to invest some serious dollars to bring it up to standards.”
Since taking ownership of the team, Edwards has invested more than $500,000 in the team. Players, including Jeff Shriver, last season's North American Soccer League top scorer, have been signed.
More than 1,000 new temporary seats will be installed along the sideline intended to bring fans closer to the play and the team has paid for television advertising for its April 12 opening game against FC Edmonton, which will include a performance by a Scottish rock-bagpipe group The Red Hot Chilli Pipers. “For those folks who watched the rowdies in the '70s and '80s, we're seeing the beginning of the renewal of that excitement,” said Rick Baker, former city mayor and president of the Edwards Group.