Bill Edwards didn't become the financial bigwig that he is by bowing down to somebody else's agenda. So while the packed house at Tuesday's Suncoast Tiger Bay Club meeting at the St. Pete Yacht Club fired questions to him about issues like the Rays, water taxis, eminent domain, moving Tampa's Port to St. Pete or the Greenlight Pinellas measure, the St. Petersburg businessman professed to having little or no opinion on any of those subjects.
No, Edwards' appearance seemed based solely on pumping up the influential thinkers who make up the Tiger Bay audience to seriously consider one of his latest purchases, the Tampa Bay Rowdies professional soccer franchise. His agenda was succinct: Sell the community on soccer's "cool" factor and the viability of the city working with him to build a newer, bigger stadium on its current Al Lang Field site, something he has been quite vocal about
over the past couple of months (after he complained about the condition of the field in May, the city kicked in $250,000 to repair it in time for this Friday night's game against Fort Lauderdale). In that respect, his timing is perfect, what with World Cup hysteria erupting in the country as the U.S. men's team advances in Brazil.
Before he even began speaking, Edwards' staffers distributed Kelly green and gold Rowdies scarves to everybody in the audience. After beginning his opening remarks with "How many people have been to a live soccer game?" he then had his AV team play a television commercial for the franchise. Then it was on to introductions of Rowdies staffers and players, and an explanation of how Rick Baker persuaded him to purchase the club in the first place.
"I'll keep adding more seats until somebody realizes, 'You probably need a stadium out there,'" he said, referring to the fact that he's already expanded Al Lang's seating by 1,000 from its original 6,500 capacity when he became managing partner of the team last December. "That's my dream, and in order to make that a reality, I have to ask everyone and anyone to listen to me, to help us become the team we want to be, the number-one team in the country for soccer."
Later he said that he had conducted a study and, "you can put an 18,000-20,000 seat stadium right where it is, right now," adding that such an expansion on the current footprint of Al Lang wouldn't require building it taller than it already is on the waterfront. When asked how he could be more successful with the Rowdies than the Tampa Bay Rays have been on a financial basis, he again returned to his goal, saying, "You start small. You work in a stadium and you fit people into it, and when it gets too small, you add to it, you keep adding to it, until you get to the point where it makes sense to build a new stadium because you're bringing in more people."
During the anticipated Q&A, the usually sharp Tiger Bay members essentially turned into pussycats, asking fawning and sometimes silly questions, such as would he buy the Pier, or bring an Apple store to St. Petersburg.
Edwards owns Sundial (formerly BayWalk), the Club at Treasure Island, two Treasure Island hotels, manages the Mahaffey Theater, and runs Bill Edwards Presents, Big 3 Entertainment and the Mortgage Investors Corporation — the St. Pete-based company that refinances home loans for veterans. The latter concern was dinged a civil penalty of $7.5 million
last year by the Federal Trade Commission for violating the Do Not Call rule.
Edwards denied one comment that he was "overextended" with all of his holdings, and emphasized how many jobs he's brought to the city with his various projects. When asked if previous criticism thrown his way had bothered him, it was apparent that outwardly he holds no grudges, saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. People can say whatever they want," before concluding that he didn't care a "rat's patootie" what others thought of him.
Edwards did offer one opinion on an issue that's been in the news of late. He said that he does support raising the minimum wage.
"Everybody should have enough money to live on," said the man who has more than most.