Soccer in Jacksonville has gone through its fair share of ups and downs over the past six years. Changes in ownership, changes in venues, changes in leagues, etc. But the one thing that has remained the same has been the commitment by fans and leadership alike to deliver a quality soccer product through the Jacksonville Armada.
The best way to do that starts at the right stadium, and Jacksonville on Tuesday moved one step closer to building a soccer-specific stadium right in the heart of downtown. The land agreement still has to go through the City Council, but assuming all goes according the plan, the Armada, after years of sailing the American soccer landscape, would be on the doorstep of finally throwing down their anchors in a place they can permanently call home.
Nathan Walter, the President of the Armada, with the tremendous business backing of Robert Palmer, has been at work with the city for more than six months try to secure roughly five acres of land at A. Phillips Randolph Blvd, just north of there Arlington Expressway, to build a new soccer-specific stadium for the Armada.
The venue would include offices for RP Funding, Palmer’s home loans business, and up to 10,000 seats for the soccer stadium.
While still very early in the design process, Walter envisions the stadium being an experience that’s never really seen before by soccer fans in the area of northeast Florida.
“Nobody in Jacksonville is going to be able to understand that feeling of a soccer-specific stadium in Jacksonville because we do not have it, so that’s kind of a cool thing,” he said. “I know it from Europe when I’m five feet away from the field and ten feet away from the field, I can hear what every player’s saying and I’m close, I’m tight because that’s going to be the atmosphere of the stadium, we’re going to be tight next to the pitch. So to have that experience is going to be new to Jacksonville. We’re excited for them to witness and understand what true soccer experience can be.”
The small space allows the club to pack the stands essentially right on top of the pitch, making just about every seat the best one in the house — similar to recently-built soccer stadiums in the country like Exploria Stadium in Orlando or Allianz Field in Minnesota.
Of course, fan feedback will go into the design of the stadium. Walter and Palmer have been in constant conversation with Section 904, the team’s largest supporters group, among other fans in recent years about what to put in a potential new stadium, and even suggested the possibility of a safe-standing supporters section at one end, another popular trend in the United States that has come over from some of the best stadiums in Europe.
“We’ve been constantly in conversation with [Section] 904 leadership and understanding what the fans want, and obviously the stadium designers,” Walter said. “There’s so much technology out there right now they can come up with these conceptual things and give a great environment for the fans to be what they want to be within a certain area.”
Palmer released renderings last week, which Walter called “very conceptual,” meaning the design of the stadium is very much in the early phases — they do have three bids out currently with companies vying to win the designing work — but the early renderings more so allowed the club to see what they have to work with within the site and what they can do.
“It showed us what we can fit on the site, that was very important,” he said. “Can we go to 10,000 seats? The good news is that we can. Can we fit a 100,000 square foot building on the site, or a 150,000 square foot building on the site? We know we can do that. As we were talking it through with the Mayor’s office we needed to understand what we can fit. Yes ,they are very conceptual, but they are along the ideas of what Robert wants to create with the experience in the stadium.”
Walter says he has a ballpark number for how much the stadium would cost but isn’t ready to release anything just yet because of the many different factors that could change the number at any time, but did say it was in the “high millions.”
The option agreement with the city would allow the Armada put down $5,000 to hold the land, which the club would then begin conducting more specific surveying on before officially buying the land for $1, if they choose the move forward with the site. If RP Funding fails to start construction by January 1, 2024, then the land reverts back to the city, and if construction hasn’t been substantially completed by July 31, 2025, then RP Funding must pay fair market value for the land.
While the deal gives a long range of time to the club to complete the stadium, the hope and belief is that the won’t need the full five years — but that it just gives them a good amount of time in case things don’t go their way.
“The other piece of the puzzle was to allow us to do ground surveys and understand what’s underneath the ground and do testing to really understand the zoning — I believe we’re going to have to do some re-zoning on the site, and so on and so on,” Walter said. “It gives us that buffer to really understand the site a lot further without being financially fully committed to the site. The agreement enabled us to do all of that and have not complete control of it and then turn around say, ’well actually the site can’t work because of this and this and this.’ We don’t believe that’s the case, we’ve done preliminary stuff, but these are all buffers just to make sure we don’t fail — and fail in a bad way.”
“Yes, it gives us five years to build a stadium,” he mentioned. “Hopefully it’s not going to take us that long and we’ll be in the stadium sooner than we can but we also have to work out the landscape of professional soccer.”
The deal is, certainly, very team friendly, as some skeptics online have noted, wondering why the city would decide to give away downtown land for essentially free, but while the club isn’t paying market value for the land, the stadium itself will be 100 percent privately financed, meaning no public money will be going into the project, another piece the Walter says was important for the club.
“At the end of the day, this is community advocate to the community and to the city,” he said. “We understand the investments that are going on across the city, especially just over the highway with Lot J and everything that’s going on there — that’s going to be very exciting for the city. It was important for us to understand 1) where professional soccer is within the city, and 2) it’s important to Robert, and it’s a legacy play to Robert as well, to not put too many city resources in was important for us.”
That may not seem like a lot on its own, but it’s part of the club’s much larger commitment to the city and the community surrounding the stadium, something that’s going to be a very large part of the Armada’s operations if and when they do move into their new home.
Included in the club’s option agreement with the city was the condition that the Armada would create a not-for-profit organization dedicated to assisting with the “rejuvenation, renovation, education, health, and wellness of the East side community located in Jacksonville, FL.”
More than ever, Walter says, the Armada want to be a community advocate and “give back to the community like every soccer club globally does” by being a catalyst for redevelopment in the area.
“Take this as the first time I ever went to that site: I drive around the site and then I went two blocks down and there is some sort of market, an outdoor market, and the first thing I see wrapped around the fence of that market is the Armada banners of what we had at the Baseball Grounds where someone probably chucked them out and some guy wrapped their whole market around. You can call if whatever you want, coincidence or whatever, but it is was as if the greater power for me was saying this is where we can really effect the community.”
The driving force behind the stadium, as it has been for a long time, is that it will make it much easier for the club to stay sustainable, and hopefully, bring in enough revenue to be financially stable. The Armada could be playing in a professional league right now at the University of North Florida or the Baseball Grounds — both venues the club has called home in the past — but doing so would take key revenues out of the club, such as parking, concession, advertising space, etc. — not to mention, they’d be paying rent to a building they don’t own.
“I would never advise Robert for us to start plowing $4-5 million a year into the professional side without us being able to monetize it and stabilize it,” Walter said. “So it’s yeah, it just doesn’t make sense and I’ve been saying this for a very long time, so it’s very exciting to see it here, potentially, with a stadium project at the door.”
Owning the venue meaning controlling the revenues, not only for the soccer matches, but any other events the club decides to hold in the stadium as well.
“The thing about that stadium is there’s not a stadium like it in northeast Florida for a start,” Walter says. “We’re going to have a soccer-specific stadium in northeast Florida, which is awesome. We’re going to be able to host, because of the field size, you can host lacrosse, rugby games, we’re going to be able to give high school soccer an opportunity to flourish in a neutral arena. So there’s so many capabilities to what we’ve got. Stadiums do stuff all the time, so beer gardens and beer events, Oktoberfest, whatever it can be. We want it to be a community thing, so we want everybody to be involved.
“We’ve already had talks with outside sports marketing groups that are interested in the facility and doing stuff as well, and other sports organizations that are interested in doing stuff within the stadium. We’re fully aware of that type of stadium being needed and wanted within northeast Florida, so it’s really exciting.”
In the meantime, the Armada will continue to lay low on the field and keep operations on the soccer side scaled back. The Armada announced on Tuesday that they would once again field a U-23 side in the NPSL next summer, joining the newly-created Gulf Coast Conference. The club will also be doing the same in at least 2021, as the stadium comes together, with the pro side returning whenever the stadium eventually opens.
What league the Armada will eventually join largely depends on how the American soccer landscape plays out over the next couple of years. Ever changing, even this past year alone has shown us how quickly things can change. In 2019, the Nation Independent Soccer Association debuted, taking a similar shape to the all-but-dead NASL, along with USL League 1, the country’s newest third division league playing just below the USL Championship. The NPSL also announced this fall the creation of a new extended season professional campaign that will stretch much longer than the current NPSL season, which only runs through the summer months.
Walter says there are currently three pro options on the table that the Armada are considering, though he won’t say right now what those options are. Everything largely depends on what is best for the club when things are finally ready.
“It’s been tough to understand,” he said, acknowledging how tough the last couple of years have been for fans. “We had to get the stadium piece in place and that has been our complete, main focus. Stability will happen in regards to understanding what the next two years look like. As you know, in lower league soccer anything can change and anything can happen, but we do have a plan for now. Our main focus has been that stadium, and it will now be the business side of the club for the next two years plus.”
“What we’re going to do is get it to a point where it’s sustainable that for the next 30-40 years we’re comfortable with where things are and the stadium allows us to do that,” he noted.
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