“It’s the next hurdle to bring professional soccer back," says Jacksonville FC Armada President and General Manager Nathan Walter.
For Jacksonville FC Armada President and General Manager Nathan Walter the last two to three years “have been some of the darkest” for professional soccer in Northeast Florida. But the possibility of a dedicated stadium, Walter said, could change the club’s fortunes.
The City Council unanimously approved a land option agreement Jan. 28 between the city and RP Sports Investments Inc. that could result in a 10,000-seat soccer stadium for the Armada and office space for other businesses.
The deal reserves city-owned property in Jacksonville’s Eastside neighborhood for the development.
After RP Sports founder Robert Palmer bought the Armada from the National American Soccer League in July 2017, the league folded and the team was pulled from play until a stadium could be built.
“It’s the next hurdle to bring professional soccer back (to Jacksonville). We got over it. We’re one step closer to reemerging the club. This is important for us,” Walter said in an interview after the vote.
An amendment to Ordinance 2019-0853 approved by Council adds a .83 acre parcel on the north side of Albert Street to the agreement, increasing the size of the property from the initial proposal to 5.83 acres.
The agreement with RP Sports does not guarantee that the stadium complex is a done deal. But Armada leadership said it would allow time to conduct environmental mitigation and other due diligence on the property bounded by A. Philip Randolph Boulevard and Grant, Albert and Georgia streets.
Walter said Palmer wants to use local resources for the project. That includes a developer that Walter said is being consulted with for the stadium/corporate office project
“We’ve been talking with a development group. We understand what can fit on the site. We understand what challenges we have now. So over the next coming weeks and months, we’re going to be finalizing what that design concept looks like, where it’s going to finish and what the end product is going to look like,” he said.
Walter would not disclose the development company.
A summary of the development terms provided by the city Office of Economic Development states that the stadium must be a minimum of 2,500 seats. The complex also would provide 100 to 200 parking spaces.
In addition to the stadium, the soccer club’s plans include commercial office space in one or more buildings of “no less than 25,000 square feet and not more than 175,000 square feet,” the summary states.
In a Nov. 15 interview, Walter said that Robert Palmer Companies employees and operations in Baymeadows would be relocated to the stadium complex.
The company leases office space at 8381 Dix Ellis Trail in Prominence office park. It has 175 employees.
Walter said “three or four” Palmer companies are considering expansion and using office space at the proposed stadium.
Armada leadership will ask for city-backed incentives to complete the project. The club president said they have estimated cost for the stadium complex, but are not ready to release the amount.
RP Funding and RP Sports are part of the Robert Palmer Companies. Palmer also founded HomeValue.com and other business ventures based in Central Florida.
Walter said work by the team leading to the Council’s vote took 1½ years. Ordinance 2019-853 requires RP Sports to begin construction on the soccer stadium and parking by Jan. 31, 2024 and be substantially completed by July 31, 2025. If the company fails to meet the completion deadline, the city could require RP Sports to pay fair market value for the property.
RP Sports will make a $5,000 payment to the city within three days of executing the agreement. After 30 days, the city would enter a purchase agreement for the property with RP Sports for $1.
The option would expire Jan. 31, 2023, if no action is taken. If RP Sports hasn’t closed on the property by Jan. 1, 2024, it will revert to the city.
It could take six to nine months to rezone the property and Walter said team leaders also hope to eventually file legislation expanding Downtown’s Sports and Entertainment District to include the proposed stadium property.
The agreement also requires RP Sports to create a nonprofit to assist with the “rejuvenation, renovation, education, health and wellness of the East side community.”
According to Walter, the Armada will host community soccer clinics in Jacksonville’s urban core, Eastside and Northside neighborhoods beginning this summer. The club is working with the City Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department for clinic locations.
Selling the property will remove parking spaces used in the annual Florida-Georgia game. Before RP Sports can close on the property, the city will need permission from the University Athletic Association Inc. in Gainesville and the University of Georgia Athletic Association Inc. As part of the agreement to host the game at TIAA Bank Field, the city is required to provide a certain number of parking spaces.
Walter said a soccer stadium could also be an opportunity to expand the Florida-Georgia weekend with a soccer game between the universities.
“Both programs of on the soccer side for the women are very strong,” Walter said. “Is there an opportunity for us to bring them in and have this Florida-Georgia kind of party that’s being built up?”