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Sony tennis tournament organizers want to upgrade Crandon Park facilities

The Sony Open Tennis Tournament, considered the sport’s “fifth Grand Slam” event, wants its county-owned Crandon Park home to get a $50-million makeover with new permanent grandstands, shaded pavilions, a grassy lawn and multi-story stadium additions.

The reason? Tournament organizers say the tennis center can no longer compete with other cities, raising the possibility — however remote — that, when the event’s lease runs out in nine years, the tournament could leave Miami.

That’s the campaign pitch organizers will make to Miami-Dade voters, if county commissioners agree on Thursday to put the question on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Two-thirds of voters would have to approve the new and expanded park structures, which would be financed by tournament revenues. In return, the tournament wants its lease extended to a total of 30 years with two optional, 10-year extensions.

But when it comes to Crandon Park, change has rarely come easy.

If approved by voters, the project would require support from a special committee that signs off on any major changes to Crandon Park, and also would need to meet terms set by the pioneering Matheson family that donated the land to the county and later sued Miami-Dade when it planned to build the tennis stadium.

Tournament organizers say if Miami doesn’t keep up with facilities in places like Madrid and Shanghai, the Sony Open (formerly known as the Sony Ericsson Open), which draws more than 326,000 visitors a year, could lose its luster.

“Events are catching up,” said Adam Barrett, senior vice president of IMG, which runs the tournament. “We want to be the leader. We want to be world class.”

The upgrades would be financed by private tournament funds and tennis center and tournament revenues, including parking fees and ticket surcharges, without a reduction to the tournament’s annual contributions to county coffers. Were Miami-Dade to issue revenue bonds to finance the project, they would be backed by tournament revenues, not the county’s general fund, Barrett said.

A county charter revision adopted in 1993 known as “Save Our Parks” requires voters to approve large, permanent structures or private, commercial uses at many county parks. The restriction is even stricter for parks like Crandon, where a two-thirds majority of the vote is required.

The measure was partly a result of years of tumult surrounding Crandon, a nearly 1,000-acre park on the northern tip of Key Biscayne. The Matheson family deeded the land in 1940 in exchange for the county building the Rickenbacker Causeway — with the condition that the land be used only as a public park.

The family sued in 1991 after the county planned to build a tennis stadium for the tournament, then known as the Lipton International Players Championship. Four years later, the two sides reached a settlement that stipulated, among other things, that the county could proceed as long as it set up a committee to approve future changes, giving the family a say. Bruce Matheson remains on the four-member committee.

Matheson said late Wednesday he wants more details about the tournament’s proposal, which he learned of only days ago.

It appears that the tournament “would like to add three more permanent stadiums to the Crandon Park Tennis Center,” he said, referring to the stadium and grandstand expansions.

Yet before drawing detailed plans and presenting them to the committee — or even providing specifics to the county parks department — the tournament will ask voters to support the Sony.

Organizers have hired a public relations firm to sell the proposal. A packet of documents provided to the media — titled “A Referendum on Whether the Sony Open Should Remain in Miami” — highlights the tournament’s appeal to tourists. Nineteen percent of attendees live outside the United States, mostly in Latin America. A study commissioned by the tournament estimates the event’s annual economic impact at nearly $387 million.

“Ten days in the winter when it’s cold most places and it’s warm here, projecting this island paradise — that has strong residual effects for people to start to visit here,” said William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, who is supporting the tournament’s proposal.

Barrett said he wants to secure the tournament’s future but also benefit the public.

“We need to protect the tournament,” he said. “But can we build a better park for the citizens of Dade County?”

The park is open seven days a week, except for about 60 days around tournament time, said Jack Kardys, the county parks director: 30 days to set up, 15 days to play and 15 days to clear up.

Much of the set-up involves bringing in temporary structures: wooden bleachers for grandstands and tents for a variety of purposes, from food concessions to player areas to a restaurant. Tournament organizers envision making those amenities permanent — a move that would save them money and, they say, protect the park’s trees and plants, which wouldn’t have to be trampled on every year by work crews.

The organizers propose building seats for three courts, for up to 6,000, 4,000 and 3,000 spectators, respectively, with restrooms, locker rooms, broadcasting booths and concession areas. They want to erect an open pavilion — a roof with columns but no walls — that would provide shade year-round and that they could outfit with canvas “walls” during the tournament.

And they plan to grow the main stadium to include a restaurant, player’s lounge and other amenities. The height of the stadium and number of seats would remain unchanged; up to 49,000 square feet would be added to the octagonal stadium, organizers say, by building one- to three-story additions to house a slew of amenities: a sports bar, a pro shop, a player dining area, offices, terraces.

Other plans include reducing the number of tennis courts from 26 to 22 and building a lakeside cottage to broadcast interviews during the tournament and to launch kayaks and canoes the rest of the time. Organizers also propose a clock tower and a center plaza with a fountain or other “signature feature.”

And they want grassy lawns, including one from which fans could watch tennis on a big screen, similar to the so-called Henman Hill at Wimbledon in London, named after British tennis player Tim Henman. Landscaping, they say, could be done by Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes the park, is sponsoring the item at Thursday’s meeting. “It would be hard for me to not be supportive of putting it on the ballot when you have to meet a threshold of two-thirds of the electorate,” he said.

If commissioners agree to place the issue before voters, tournament organizers would have about two months to sell their idea to a public wary of potentially being on the hook if a private project fails.

“Nobody today is crazy” about spending public money, said Gene Stearns, the tournament’s attorney. That’s why organizers plan to emphasize to commissioners and voters that the upgrades would be financed by tournament revenues.

“Can we get two-thirds [of the vote]? Yes,” Stearns said. “Is it going to be easy? No.”