ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) County commissioners on Tuesday approved $20 million in tourism taxes to be used toward the funding of an $84 million downtown Orlando Major League Soccer stadium, clearing the last hurdle for the city to be the home of the league's next expansion franchise.
MLS president Mark Abbott said in a statement after the vote that the league looks forward to working with the Orlando ownership group to finalize the agreement to bring a franchise to the central Florida city.
The Orange County Commission's vote was 5-2 Tuesday night. It came after a six-hour meeting that included comments from more than 100 members of the community speaking mostly in support.
Earlier this month, city officials voted unanimously on the same funding plan to help the minor league USL Pro League Orlando City Soccer Club build the 18,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium. The team will contribute the rest of the funding for construction.
Following the vote, dozens of purple-clad Orlando City fans in the standing-room only commission chamber erupted in applause and began chanting "We are going MLS! We are going MLS!"
Orlando City has been lobbying to become a MLS expansion team for more than three years, but currently plays in the outdated Florida Citrus Bowl.
Now that the city and county have approved, Orlando City Soccer owner Phil Rawlins said that an official agreement with MLS could be completed within weeks. Once that's in place, construction would be next with an opening date of 2015 planned.
When Rawlins brought the minor team to Orlando in 2010, he predicted it could move up to the MLS within five years. He said his prognostication was less about wishful thinking and more about belief in Orlando as a market.
"I felt very strongly at the time that was achievable," Rawlins said. "I think Orlando is a great marketplace for MLS. It's proven that with the support it has in the minor leagues. I know the city is very anxious for a second major sports team and MLS is excited about expansion in the southeast...So I felt confident we could make that happen in that time frame."
Among those joining fans and business owners to speak on behalf of MLS coming to Orlando were Orlando Magic co-founders Pat Williams and Jimmy Hewitt.
Williams lauded the foresight city officials had when they first brought the idea of NBA expansion to Orlando 25 years ago.
"Once again this community is faced with that vision thing once again," Williams told commissioners.
Rawlins said once the final paperwork is complete with the league, they hope to make an announcement in about a month.
"I think anytime you're building toward a vision and achieving your dreams it's always exciting," Rawlins said.
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