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Upgrades to Crandon Park for Sony tennis tournament will go to voters in November

Miami-Dade commissioners unanimously agreed Thursday to place a question on the Nov. 6 ballot asking voters if they want to approve a nearly $50 million face-lift to the Crandon Park Tennis Center and a lease extension for the Sony Open Tennis Tournament.

The ballot question will include a condition, put forth by tournament organizers, that the upgrades can only be paid for with tennis center and tournament revenues and private funds, not from the county’s general fund.

Organizers will now have to sell their plan to voters. They will need a two-thirds majority to approve the proposal for the county to take the next steps.

The tournament wants to expand the tennis center’s main stadium by up to 49,000 square feet to add a slew of amenities ranging from a player’s lounge to broadcasting booths to a restaurant — amenities currently housed under temporary tents during the event. It also intends, among other changes, to build permanent grandstand seating for three courts instead of bringing in wooden bleachers for the tournament once a year.

In their brief presentation to commissioners, the organizers said their plans to expand the tennis center’s existing main stadium and build the three permanent grandstands do not involve using new tourist tax dollars or reducing revenues the parks department receives from the annual tournament.

“Not a penny,” said Gene Stearns, a lawyer for IMG, the company that operates the tournament formerly known as the Sony Ericsson Open.

The makeover will be paid for exclusively with revenues from parking surcharges, ticket fees and other tournament revenues. No new tourist tax dollars will be used, though that money will continue to be used to pay off the debt incurred when the county built the tennis center’s main stadium.

In return for building the upgrades, the tournament wants to get an extension of its lease with the county to a total of 30 years, with two optional, 10-year extensions.

Commissioners, who have faced much criticism for funding most of the Miami Marlins’ new Little Havana ballpark, drilled county attorneys and Stearns on financing details. Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who sponsored the item and whose district includes the tennis center, made it clear he expects the facility to remain open to the public and free of charge when the tournament is not in town.

Stearns and other organizers have suggested that if they cannot upgrade the tennis center, the tournament would leave the county.

Commissioner Bruno Barreiro asked where the Matheson family, which in 1940 donated the nearly 1,000 acres that would become Crandon Park, stands on the plan. The family has long fought to keep the park open and pristine, including taking the county to court when it built the stadium. The two sides eventually reached a settlement that included the formation of a special, four-member committee to approve future park plans. One family member, Bruce Matheson, still sits on that committee.

Matheson has said little about the proposal, which he learned of only days ago, saying he wants to know more details.

Stearns noted that the public vote would be the first step for the project. Next would come committee approval.

“If the voters say no, then we know the die is cast,” Stearns said.

Commissioner Dennis Moss, who was reelected last week, and Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who faces a runoff against Keon Hardemon in November, stressed that the project should create jobs for local workers. If voters approve the project, Edmonson wants a plan in place before construction begins on how the county would monitor benefits to the workforce.

Organizers will need two-thirds of the electorate to support the proposal, a requirement set in 1993 when voters approved a charter amendment known as “Save Our Parks.”

The board members found little to say against the plan. Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz called it “a golden opportunity.”

Said Commissioner Rebeca Sosa: “Preserving and promoting this event is of the utmost importance.”