David Beckham and Jorge Mas pitch to city commission on Miami soccer stadium
After the five years that David Beckham has spent trying to build a stadium for Miami’s future Major League Soccer team, what’s another week?
Following Thursday’s marathon Miami City Commission meeting, which was stretched out with hours of public testimony and debate, the commissioners deferred a decision to put a large-scale redevelopment at Melreese Country Club on the November ballot for six more days.
The result provided an anticlimactic conclusion to an otherwise tension-filled day, with soccer boosters and pro-Melreese onlookers eagerly waiting to see if Miami’s elected body would hold a referendum on the vision that Beckham and his partners, led locally by MasTec executive Jorge Mas, have put forth — a sprawling complex called Miami Freedom Park with a 25,000-seat soccer stadium, 750 hotel rooms, restaurants, retail and entertainment, along with a new 58-acre park and 23 acres of soccer fields.
Just after the sun set Thursday, Commissioner Ken Russell held the power as he began his remarks. Russell, who was perceived as the swing vote on the matter, criticized the Beckham group, which had not conducted any outreach in the neighborhood immediately east of Melreese. Then he moved through individual provisions of the deal seeking verbal assurances from the Beckham group on issues from the replacement of lost park space to the question of who would pay for cleaning up contaminated soil.
Other sticking points for Russell included assurances that workers on the project would be paid a living wage and revenue sharing with the Beckham group. He also noted that commissioners had offered amendments to the proposed ballot language that needed to be rectified.
“We can continue to negotiate,” Russell said. “But I’m not ready tonight.”
That uncertainty led the commission to push the decision back to 10 a.m. Wednesday, July 18, a crucial meeting before the county election department’s Aug. 7 deadline for submitting language for the November ballot.
After the meeting, Mayor Francis Suarez, who had spoken passionately in favor of the referendum, expressed his frustration with the commission’s decision to defer the vote.
“I really wish they would’ve made a decision tonight, so we could have moved to the next phase,” Suarez told reporters.
Hours earlier, before a packed commission chamber that overflowed beyond City Hall’s front door, Beckham made his first appearance in front of an elected body in Miami since he began pursuing a Major League Soccer team in this city five years ago.
But before his entrance, which seemed more solemn than celebratory in the sober room, came three and a half hours of public testimony on his large-scale stadium complex plan. Dozens of residents spoke in favor or against the concept, with supporters preaching the projected public benefits of the project or simply asking that soccer finally have a home in Miami.
Those opposing the plan, most wearing orange, asked commissioners to consider a well-regarded youth golf program, First Tee, that serves thousands of children a year with golf lessons, academic tutoring and character-building activities at Melreese Country Club.
And when the soccer star walked in, he could feel the heat.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve walked into a room and people have not smiled at me,” Beckham told commissioners. “It’s not a nice feeling.”
Beckham extolled his love of soccer and his desire to bring the sport to Miami, later echoed by Mas in a presentation that was the first instance where the group’s full plans were shown to the public. Mas acknowledged that past stadium deals, namely that of Marlins Park, had been bad for the city. He pledged that his would be different.
“The Marlins deal is a terrible deal for our community,” he said. “The first thing that I said is we are not going to do anything like that.”
Mas and his team emphasized the differences between the Marlins deal and the soccer proposal — the construction would be privately financed and the initial terms of a ground lease would go to a referendum.
All of the Beckham group’s guarantees were spoken but not written in the resolutions the commission was considering, including the soil clean-up — which Mas acknowledged would call for more testing. He said without that testing, which requires measuring the depths of lakes on the site, he did not know the cost of cleaning up Melreese or how that cost would affect the project.
“The only unknown, in my opinion, is the remediation,” Mas told reporters after the vote. “And we’ll figure that out once we get measurements on the lakes. But I’m very, very confident we’ll be able to get this accomplished by next week.”
Earlier in the day, those opposed to the stadium included children, parents and former Major League Baseball pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who donned an orange First Tee polo and said he volunteers for the program. Many offered personal testimonials of their positive experiences with First Tee, including academic tutoring, golf scholarships, and long-lasting friendships.
On the other hand, soccer fanatics have been waiting for a Beckham franchise in Miami for years.
“I think it’s pretty ridiculous how it’ taken this many years,” said Eduardo Neret, 22, of Coconut Grove. “I think there’s a lot of red tape. I think the city government is really putting up a lot of roadblocks to this project.”