ST. PETERSBURG — Prominent local businessman Bill Edwards has been fiercely critical of the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission’s running of Al Lang Stadium, home to his Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer franchise.
Now, Edwards is taking aim at the small nonprofit’s group’s other city-owned complex.
In a recent letter to the city, Edwards asked city council not to renew the contract with the Baseball Commission, which manages and operates Walter Fuller Complex, a sports park in the Jungle area of west St. Petersburg. Instead, Edwards wants the contract put up for a competitive bid and plans a combined bid from his companies, The Edwards Group and Citrus Sports Group, the business arm of the Rowdies franchise.
Baseball Commission leaders describe Edwards’ request as a first step toward wresting control of Al Lang away from the group and replacing it with a soccer stadium. Losing the contract for Walter Fuller also could threaten the group’s future, Director Steve Nadel said. It has about 10 full-time employees, but employs up to 100 part-time workers during peak periods.
“I spoke to Bill a couple of days ago and it was implied I should walk away from my contract with the stadium or go to war,” Nadel said. “This all is unnerving. I just want my employees to be able to provide for their families.”
The Fuller complex, comprised of five baseball fields and a club house, attracts about 600 baseball teams a year, with roughly half coming from outside of the city, Nadel said. With fans, parents and players, that adds up to about 15,000 visitors and 20,000 hotel night stays, an economic benefit of about $7 million, he said.
City officials praised the Baseball Commission’s performance at Walter Fuller and said they would recommend extending the group’s contract, which expires at the end of September, were there no other interest.
“They have done a good job of bringing in activity, high schools and colleges and men’s and other amateur baseball activities,” said Joe Zeoli, managing director of the city development administration.
The Baseball Commission, whose mission is to encourage local and international baseball and other sports, took over running both sports facilities in 2010. The city pays no money to the group, but pays $200,000 for repairs, maintenance and utility costs of the two facilities. Prior to that, the city paid $1 million a year to the Tampa Bay Rays, which used the facilities for spring training until moving its preseason operations to Port Charlotte.
The Baseball Commission makes it money from field rentals and concession sales, including those at Rowdies games, Zeoli said.
Both facilities are covered under one contract, but are renewed separately because the city charter mandates different terms for waterfront property and city property in residential areas. The agreement with the Baseball Commission to run Al Lang expires in 2016.
Edwards said his companies would bring experience gained running a professional sports operation and the Mahaffey Theater. The Fuller complex, 7901 30th Ave. N., is next to soccer fields where the Rowdies train and he envisions it becoming a state of the art practice facility.
“City council has witnessed the revival of both the Mahaffey Theater and the Rowdies while under our group’s management,” Edward wrote. “We encourage city council to allow us the opportunity to do the same for the Walter Fuller Complex so that it may reach its full potential.”
His push to get the contract is further evidence of a strained relationship between the Rowdies and their landlord. Earlier this year, the Rowdies complained directly to the city about the condition of the stadium, citing a laundry list of needed repairs, including mold and flooding in locker rooms and other areas, inadequate stadium lighting and broken stadium seats.
Nadel responded that many of those issues were exaggerated and that the team stopped attending meetings where repair projects were prioritized.
Edwards bought a controlling interest in the Rowdies in December and has invested in new players and spent $500,000 to add midfield seating to improve the experience for fans.
Winning the contract to manage the stadium would mean the team could make money from concession sales. Longer term, it also could make it easier to redevelop Al Lang into a soccer venue.
The parking lot of the 1977 stadium was identified as an impediment to extending Beach Drive by a panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute. The future of the stadium is likely to be a key feature of the city’s downtown waterfront master plan, scheduled to be completed next year.
State lawmakers’ recent decision to add the North American Soccer League, in which the Rowdies play, to a list of major sports leagues eligible to apply for state funding for new stadiums also has fueled speculation that Edwards may push for a new stadium for the Rowdies.
City council is scheduled to decide whether to extend the Baseball Commission’s contract at a meeting on June 5.
Council Vice Chairman Steve Kornell said his preference is to open up the contract for bidding. He said he is not concerned that it may be a stepping stone for Edwards.
“Bill Edwards is no different from any other sports franchise owner — he wants to control the stadium where his team plays,” Kornell said.