Orlando City Council approves soccer stadium funding



In a unanimous vote Monday afternoon, the Orlando City Council approved $20 million in funding for a soccer stadium in downtown. The next step will be a vote by the Orange County Commission later this month.

Approval of the stadium would be the last piece of the puzzle for the city to gain a Major League Soccer expansion franchise. The city expects that Orlando would have an MLS team by 2015 if the county votes in favor of funding.

Orlando City Soccer President Phil Rawlins hoped to score big with the city Monday.   

"This is obviously a very big step toward our goal of bringing MLS," Rawlins said in a statement from the club. "I am delighted to have the city behind us so we can now focus on the second vote that is only two weeks away."

The county must now approve funds to build a downtown stadium before Orlando City Soccer could enter into final negotiations to bring an expansion team to central Florida.

City officials said Major League Soccer requires an 18,000- to 25,000-seat stadium, with a cover over the crowd that will keep out the elements and keep in the noise and excitement.

Backers of the effort said that is why the Citrus Bowl isn't an option.

"If you go to a stadium that's covered it makes 20,000 sound like 70,000. And it's yours. That's where you're at," said soccer fan Charles Tolman.

"If we can build a stadium that's appropriate size, it's going to be electric, absolutely electric," said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs.

But getting approval from the Orange County Commission isn't expected to go as smoothly as the City Council vote.

At least three county commissioners have expressed concerns about investing millions in a stadium.

Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwards told Channel 9's Kathi Belich Monday that some Major League Soccer cities have not been able to make the payments they've committed to for stadiums. He said he is concerned because he hasn't seen the details of the funding plan yet.

Rawlins said he's confident he'll win them over in two weeks when he makes his pitch to the commission.

Rawlins said Major League Soccer could make a decision about which city will get the next team within 30 days after Orange County's vote.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said he is confident that the County Commission will have the votes to pass the funding plan.

The city has plans to build a stadium in the Parramore area, and has already started buying land for it.

He said the soccer stadium is only the beginning of development planned for the area between the Citrus Bowl, the proposed stadium and the Amway Center.

"We anticipate there will be a lot of fill in the gap, the (Orlando) Magic will bring forward a proposal a couple of council meetings from now, to do $100 million project north of the Amway Center and that will be a catalyst for additional development," Dyer said.

Dyer said this will make Orlando the sports entertainment capital of the Southeast and will pump money into the economy.

Not all residents agree.

Parramore resident Lawanna Gelzer believes these projects will mean the neighborhood will lose its character and force many people to move out.

"It will not bring additional revenue to the city, it will suck it dry," Gelzer said. "I will not turn a blind eye to what the city of Orlando is doing to the Parramore community and the surrounding community."

Other residents said they're not sure what's going to happen but for now they're just waiting and watching to see how it all plays out.

Dyer said using the Citrus Bowl, rather than building a new stadium, would be a deal breaker for MLS, which is demanding a smaller, more intimate setting than the 65,000-seat Citrus Bowl.

Some critics have expressed concern about the ability to fill an 18,000-seat soccer stadium.

Rawlins said if Orlando gets an MLS team attendance at games would increase by 150 percent, which could fill an 18,000 seat stadium.

"There are four teams that have gone from our league to the major league and all four of those have seen an increase well in excess of 150 percent. So, we feel very confident we'd not only fill an 18,000 to 19,000 seat stadium, but we'd have a waiting list for that too," said Rawlins.

"I'm guessing that the first day we open the MLS stadium we're going to have a sellout crowd and record sellouts after that," said Dyer.

Backers said MLS would have a billion-dollar economic impact on central Florida over 30 years, which averages out to more than $30 million a year.

City commissioners also voted on spending an additional $25 million on a performing arts center and up to another $12 million on the Citrus Bowl renovations.