ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards is taking his very public complaints against the group that manages Al Lang Stadium to the court system.
After months of criticizing the nonprofit St. Petersburg Baseball Commission for substandard maintenance of the downtown soccer field, Edwards filed a lawsuit this week that claims the commission has violated its contract and hurt business for the sports franchise.
An attorney representing the baseball commission says it is merely a power play by the prominent businessman to push the group out of its job of managing the stadium and another sports complex on the west side of town.
Edwards' lawsuit seeks financial damages from the commission and asks the court to force the group to fulfill its obligations for upkeep at the stadium and reporting ticket sales.
An injunction filed Thursday urges the court to hear the case quickly, raising concerns that ongoing neglect at the stadium could hurt business and jeopardize the team's standing in the North American Soccer League.
“The Rowdies had a lot of reason to try very hard to solve long-simmering problems quietly and consensually, but now that the SPBC (St. Petersburg Baseball Commission) has proved so intransigent it has become apparent that immediate action is needed to ensure what's best for the Rowdies and the community,” said John Anthony, a Tampa attorney representing Edwards.
Jeffrey Adams, the commission's attorney, says his client consistently has fulfilled its end of the licensing agreement both with the Rowdies' former ownership and with Edwards.
Complaints about the aging stadium only started after the new owner took over in December.
While it surely falls short of Edwards' vision for the city to build a sweeping new stadium, Al Lang is being kept up to perfectly normal standards that meet the requirements of the agreement, Adams said.
“If you buy an economy car, you don't get to claim then that what we'd really like, after we bought and paid for it, is a Rolls-Royce, and that's to an extent what they've complained about,” Adams said.
Edwards has been pressing the commission for months to make improvements on everything from seating to the playing field.
The controlling owner of the team has spent $500,000 on improvements, including new VIP seating and, last month, the city agreed to spend $250,000 to lay new sod on the field in response to his concerns.
The city also has granted Edwards' request to bid on the management of the Walter Fuller Complex in west St. Petersburg when a contract with the baseball commission expires.
The commission has a contract to manage Al Lang 2 ½ more years and Adams says Edwards' group is doing “anything and everything they can to get my client out so they can run and control the facility.”
In addition to maintenance issues, Edwards' lawsuit accuses the commission of failing to give an adequate account of ticket sales' revenue and incorrectly charging the team “fees” and “surcharges.”
The commission also is blamed for refusing to put out a Request For Proposal, as required, when it chose the third-party ticketing vendor ExtremeTix.
Adams says both of these claims are false and that several vendors were considered before the Rowdies agreed to the company.
Edwards is looking for reasons to “smear” the commission, he said.
“My clients, but for Mr. Edwards' campaign, have been a huge success story in St. Petersburg,” he said.
The Edwards Group referred questions about the lawsuit to its attorney, though Edwards himself has spoken out frequently against the commission.
He has called for the city to convert Al Lang into a permanent soccer stadium rather than shifting the field to baseball part of the year or even build a larger facility that could boost the team's profile and attendance.