Port director steers clear of soccer debate

Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, talks with Port Director Bill Johnson at a January meeting of the County Commission.
Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, talks with Port Director Bill Johnson at a January meeting of the County Commission.
Roberto Koltun / El Nuevo Herald

Miami-Dade County’s port director kept a respectful distance from the soccer debate Wednesday, saying his staff would help “properly vet” a proposal to bring a professional soccer stadium to the world’s busiest cruise ship center.

Bill Johnson, arguably the most high-profile of county Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s department heads, emerged from his annual State of the Port address without inserting himself into the debate over whether to let David Beckham build a 25,000-seat soccer stadium at the county-owned port.

“We at PortMiami are committed to working with Major League Soccer . . to ensure we are doing the right thing to properly vet this proposal,” he said, “to be sure we do the right thing for Miami-Dade County and PortMiami.”

Johnson’s remarks, delivered at an industry event focusing on PortMiami and Miami International Airport, come as Gimenez and other county staffers are negotiating with Beckham’s representatives over the potential terms of building a stadium.

Beckham identified about 35 acres of vacant land at the southwest corner of the port as his preferred site for a Major League Soccer facility. Beckham wants about 12 acres for a stadium, which he said he would build with mostly private dollars if Miami-Dade provides the land. His investment group is also lobbying Tallahassee for a stadium subsidy from Florida that currently generates about $2 million a year for the AmericanAirlines Arena, Sun Life Stadium and other professional sports facilities across the state.

Port executives want to use the waterfront land to generate millions of new dollars for a port already strapped by almost $900 million in debt and that needs to raise $400 million more by the end of the decade to fund an expansion plan.

Johnson used his address at the Miami Airport Convention Center to tout the port’s finances, cargo traffic and the near-record 4 million cruise passengers that traveled through Miami in 2013. But he also noted that the facility cannot rest easy when it comes to the bottom line. The port must meet large funding requirements for the Port Tunnel project, a new rail yard, and cranes large enough to serve the larger ships expected once the Panama Canal expansion is completed.

“Your port still faces significant financial challenges,” said Johnson, who is scheduled to retire next year. “Your port still needs investment.”

Given the soccer debate, Johnson’s address was the main attraction of the yearly State of the Ports event. He shared top billing with his counterpart at Miami International Airport, county Aviation Director Emilio González.

In his first State of the Ports speech since taking the airport director’s job last year, González touted MIA’s strong growth, even during the economic downturn, and noted the current record pace of 40 million passengers per year has already matched earlier forecasts for 2017.

On the heels of successfully pushing for new countywide taxicab rules, González touted the new rules and promised travelers a pleasant experience at Florida’s busiest airport.

“We will make sure our passengers coming to a world-class airport in a world-class city receive world-class service from touchdown to takeoff,” he said.

González and Johnson spoke before a crowd estimated at 1,000 in the DoubleTree Hilton complex for the $75-a-plate luncheon. Proceeds went to World Trade Center Miami, a nonprofit organization that manages trade shows and other events tied to international commerce.

The World Trade Center hopes to establish a new headquarters on the land Beckham is eyeing for the stadium. Supporters of Beckham’s plan see soccer as adding life to the proposed commercial complex while still leaving room for the hotel and other uses already on the port’s wish list. The surrounding water is too shallow to be used for cruise or cargo berths, but is slated for a luxury marina.

In his remarks, Johnson emphasized the importance of that land in the port’s financial future, and noted the longstanding plan to lure commercial development that would “tie the southwest corner to the maritime industry.”

The property “provides us an opportunity to develop new revenue streams while aligning your port more closely with beautiful downtown Miami,” Johnson said.

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