The City Council of St. Petersburg is finally doing something right! They are proposing that the Rowdies Stadium at the “Al Lang” field site be improved with private funds – relieving the taxpayers of the burden of attracting a professional sports teams. The special referendum, to occur on 5/2, would allow the city to lease the stadium to a private company to expand and upgrade it as part of a Rowdies expansion into Major League Soccer (MLS). The company currently leasing the site is Bill Edward’s “Big 3 entertainment” which would undoubtedly be securing the new lease. According to the city law authorizing the lease and the referendum , no taxpayer dollars could be used for the stadium expansion/upgrade (see the ordinance below or download it here). In addition, no taxpayer dollars could be used to pay for any taxpayer dollars to be paid as part of attracting a Rowdies expansion team. As a bonus, the Rowdies would pay the cost of the special referendum to allow the voters to decide.
This is a major change from the past demagoguing of such efforts by duplicitous politicians who disparaged similar efforts as “privatization”. They always have seemed to prefer taxpayer dollars to be handed over to corporations for the Rays, the Pier, the Grand Prix and more. The opportunity to have a private company re-build and expand a St. Petersburg waterfront venue entirely on their own dime is a breath of fresh air. When running as a candidate for St. Petersburg City Council, Dr. David McKalip, founder and editor of this blog, proposed a long term lease to a private company to re-build and manage the pier. Then Mayor Bill Foster attacked the proposal as “privatization” – but did not explain why the proposal itself was bad. Private funding for a Rays Stadium in Tampa Bay also would be better for the taxpayers and avoid the endless politics and crony corporatism surrounding the Rays stadium issue.
Certainly, the duplicitous politicians can always find loopholes to spend taxpayer dollars on the stadium, but it is unlikely given the terms of the referendum. One way they could circumvent it is to spend money on the stadium that is not related to expansion of the Rowdies. The ordinance authorizing the referendum states the “city shall not pay for any upgrades to or expansion of the Facility’s stadium that have been proposed as part of the Rowdie’s bid for an MLS expansion team or that are required as a condition of selecting St. Petersburg to receive and expansion team”. Fair enough – sounds good. But the city COULD spend money on upgrades and expansion of the stadium that have nothing to do with the Rowdies deal. That will bear watching. The referendum also says “the City shall not pay, in whole or in part, any fees or other charges imposed by the MLS as a condition of selecting St. Petersburg to receive and expansion team.” Fair enough and sounds great! However, the city council could VOLUNTARILY spend money that are not fees to attract a team outside of this deal. In addition, if the Rowdies deal falls through, what then? Furthermore, will the city start spending taxpayer money at the stadium anyway – entirely outside of this ordinance?Again, such shenanigans will require vigilance.
The reason this referendum is necessary is that the city ordinances currently require a vote for any lease or agreement related to city waterfront property that exceeds five years. The Rowdies stadium deal would be for up to 25 years, and thus requires voter approval. Wouldn’t it be great if the city stopped its current Pier Debacle and found a company that would lease the site and build a profit-making enterprise that we all could enjoy and would not cost the taxpayers a dime? If the City Council likes the Rowdies deal, they should also push to lease the pier site in a long-term deal in a similar way to private company and save taxpayers from the tens of millions being spent there for a piece of turf over the bay with a concrete box at the end.
All in all the Rowdies proposal looks like it is a good deal for taxpayers and has the potential to change the course of future deals relating to waterfront development and privately run enterprise (Rays, Grand Prix) in the future. The Sun Beam Times recommends a “Yes” vote.