Cruise chief warns of “lip service” to PortMiami’s importance during Beckham soccer stadium debate

The head of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. said Thursday that pursuing a soccer stadium at PortMiami endangers the cargo and cruise center’s key role in Miami-Dade’s economy.

“The port and its contribution to the community is something everybody gives lip service to,’’ said Richard Fain, chairman of RCCL. “I’m not sure everybody understands how important it is, and how vulnerable it is.”

Fain is helping lead the charge against what he described as David Beckham’s “ill-considered” push to build a stadium on county-owned port land that includes part of RCCL’s current headquarters campus. A former company executive-turned RCCL lobbyist heads a group campaigning against Beckham’s plan, and it meets at RCCL headquarters to plot strategy.

In a meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board , Fain condemned what he called a “bums’ rush” to win approval for the proposed 25,000-seat stadium, and rejected the claims by Beckham negotiators that the facility would remain empty beyond the two dozen or so nights reserved for Major League Soccer.

“Obviously it’s not a financially viable transaction to predicate the stadium’s use on only 20 days a year,’’ Fain said. “We are worried about what happens the other 345 days. We’re worried about what it does for traffic. We’re worried about what it does for infrastructure.”

The meeting marked Fain’s first public comments on a soccer plan that so far has not received public criticism from the port’s other two major cruise carriers: Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line. Beckham’s negotiators want about 12 acres of port land to build a 25,000-seat stadium with an open roof and no parking garages, with visions of fans using existing garages and walking over a pedestrian bridge from downtown Miami.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is in talks with Beckham’s team, but insisted on a radio show Thursday that he is not endorsing PortMiami as a soccer site over alternatives that include Florida International University in western Miami-Dade and land next to Marlins Park.

“Is the port a viable site? Yes, I believe it it is viable site,” Gimenez told Joe Rose on his morning sports-talk show. “Is it the only site? No it’s not the only site. People really need to take a deep breath and see the process through.”

John Alschuler, the New York real estate consultant working for Beckham, said the proposed soccer stadium would enjoy enough revenue streams from merchandise, television and sponsorships to prosper while remaining closed for most of the year. While he has acknowledged pursuing the University of Miami’s Saturday football games, Alschuler said there are no plans for other tenants to attract traffic and spectators beyond Major League Soccer’s schedule.

“I presume the leadership of RCL knows shipping and the cruise industry,’’ said Alschuler, a registered lobbyist for Miami Beckham United. “I don’t think they know the sports business very well.”

At issue is about 12 acres that Beckham wants on the port’s southwest corner, which faces water too shallow for cruise ships or cargo carriers. Miami-Dade commissioners have already approved a growth blueprint that calls for commercial development on an area that includes the stadium site, and port executives this year traveled to Asia pitching would-be developers on a more elaborate plan calling for up to 7 million square feet of hotels, offices and expo space — but no stadium.

Fain also criticized the development plan, saying it was a mistake to bring in non-port activities to an island already teeming with cargo and cruise facilities. “I don’t know what the best use of that land is,’’ he said. “We’re not a developer. We don’t have that expertise. We don’t have anything in mind.”

In a letter to employees sent Thursday afternoon, Fain walked through his anti-stadium case and noted: “The lobbyists for the port stadium whisper that we have a ‘secret agenda,’ a competing desire to develop the land ourselves. Well . . . that’s how Grandma made baloney.”

On Dec. 13, as Royal Caribbean began to try to block the port stadium, Fain sent Gimenez a letter stating “we have expressed interest and recently floated some ideas about redevelopment of this same site, which is currently used primarily as an RCL employee parking lot.”

On Thursday, Fain, who has declined past interview requests, said the line referenced talks the company had with PortMiami about an expansion of the carrier’s ship presence.

The port’s expansion plan calls for putting a mega-yacht marina at the RCCL site. Fain said port executives were interested in the dollars from that venture if it built the terminal facilities needed to bring Royal Caribbean’s 5,400-passenger Allure and Oasis down from Port Everglades once their current leases expire in 2018.

“We wanted to look at, was there an opportunity for them to come to Miami-Dade,’’ Fain said of the Allure and Oasis. “One of the issues from the port’s point of view was: Was there something else we can do to help the port raise money? One of the ideas they had looked at was . . . a marina there.”

Fain said John Tercek, RCCL’s vice president of commercial development, led the PortMiami talks. Tercek heads up Royal Caribbean’s Commercial Development Group, which is focused on creating docking and port facilities for RCCL ships as well as “creating mixed-use commercial development,’’ according to a September presentation Tercek made to an industry group.

Tercek’s presentation includes a restaurant and shopping complex in Jamaica and a rendering of a proposed complex at St. Maarten’s port with mid-rise buildings, a marina and a hotel. Fain and his deputy, Adam Goldstein, RCCL’s president and CEO, said the companyhas no interest in building something similar at PortMiami.

“We don’t have development interest” at PortMiami, Goldstein said. “St. Maarten is a completely different situation than PortMiami.”

The organized and seemingly well-funded fight against Beckham’s stadium plans centers around RCCL. John Fox, formerly the company’s head of industry relations and now its registered lobbyist, runs the newly formed Miami Seaport Alliance. The group meets regularly at RCCL headquarters for strategy sessions. It hired a Coral Gables public relations firm, Kreps DeMaria, and is running television and radio ads against the stadium plan.

Rob Zeiger, RCCL’s chief spokesman, confirmed Thursday that the group has conducted focus groups of local residents on the soccer issue but declined to talk about the results.

Carnival and NCL have not joined the Alliance.

Fain called it a mistake to write off the southwest corner as land that could help the port thrive as a cargo and cruise center.

“We as a community ought to be rallying around to try and support it and encourage it and develop it,’’ he said of the port. “And not find ways to pick apart pieces on the edge that from a distant appear as if they’re not important.”

Miami Herald staff writer Hannah Sampson contributed to this report.

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