The drama surrounding David Beckham’s years-long effort to build a stadium in Miami for his future Major League Soccer team is going to political penalty kicks in the next week.
Thursday’s drawn-out City Commission meeting ended late with elected officials postponing a vote to hold a referendum on Miami Freedom Park, the vision Beckham and his partners are pitching to build a large office, retail and hotel complex along with a soccer stadium on Melreese Country Club, Miami’s only city-owned golf course.
Owing to a list of unresolved concerns from commissioners — particularly Ken Russell, who pushed for a delay — the matter will return to the commission for a vote at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Three of five votes are needed for the commission to place the issue on the November ballot.
Until then, the partnership behind the stadium deal is expected to lobby Russell and Commissioner Willy Gort, whose district includes Melreese and who has so far opposed the proposal.
One key sticking point: the extent of the environmental cleanup required at Melreese. The soil under the course is contaminated with arsenic, but the extent isn’t known. Beckham’s partner, Jorge Mas, told commissioners he did not know how expensive remediation would be, so he could not commit to paying for all of the cleanup.
“I want it so that the city will not be responsible for any remediation cost no matter what they find,” he told the Miami Herald on Friday.
Mas and Beckham’s plan was dogged by skepticism in the days before the hearing because few details had been shared with the public beforehand. Elements of the deal that were published in the agenda for the meeting were changed in a brief fact sheet released by Mas, along with one architectural rendering. But the two documents only raised more questions.
“It breeds suspicion because we live in Miami, and people have been burned before,” Russell said. “And so people are naturally going to have suspicions.”
During the debate, Gort chastised Mas for not holding a community meeting in his district before Thursday’s unveiling and for not providing more details in advance of the meeting. On Friday, he had some advice for the Beckham group.
“First thing you do is go out to the community and make them part of the project,” he said. “I think they need to do that, they should have done it before.”
Representatives for the Beckham group visited Gort at City Hall on Friday to discuss Thursday’s hearing. The commissioner later said he had yet to see anything that would sway his vote.
Russell, the swing vote who spurred the postponement, said he would make himself available to talk through his other concerns, such as the payment of a living wage to employees at the commercial center and the replacement of lost park space elsewhere in the city, which is required under Miami’s planning policy.
“I’m not talking grabbing every swale and calling it a park,” he said.
The bulk of public speakers who opposed the stadium plan on Thursday were from First Tee Miami, a respected not-for-profit organization that offers youths golf instruction, academic tutoring and character-building programs out of Melreese. They opposed being displaced from Melreese, and even when Mas offered to keep the program on the site at a golf entertainment facility, such as a Top Golf, that is part of his plans, they were skeptical.
On Thursday, Mayor Francis Suarez revealed he had been speaking with the mayor of Miami Springs, Billy Bain, about a deal to relocate First Tee to the Miami Springs Golf and Country Club. The city of Miami formerly owned the facility but sold it to Miami Springs in 1997 for $3 million as part of Miami’s financial recovery plan in the wake of a budget crisis.
Part of that deal included a 50/50 profit-sharing provision, but the course has never turned a profit under the agreement. Bain asked Suarez to let the Springs keep any future profits, and in return, Suarez asked if the Springs course could host First Tee. In a July 10 letter to Suarez, Bain said he would welcome the offer.
“Certainly, there are issues that need to be addressed, but I am confident that we can work through them,” Bain wrote.
Russell said he thought both options had potential, but he made it clear he doesn’t want the program to be downsized.
The commissioner also wants the city to get more money out of the deal. Mas is proposing to pay a minimum of $3.5 million in annual rent for the 73 acres the Beckham group would develop, along with $20 million for park improvements, paid to the city in installments over 30 years.
In addition, Russell wants Mas to pay the city a percentage of revenue or a surcharge on stadium ticket sales.
“Would this make it less profitable for them? Perhaps, but I believe this should be profitable for the resident,” Russell said.
On Friday, the mayor said he was “cautiously confident” the Beckham group could secure a third vote before Wednesday. A supporter of the project, he was frustrated following Thursday night’s hearing, though he thinks the ownership heard the feedback from commissioners and the public that they needed to hear.
“Having them publicly present the proposal, answer questions and subject themselves to the scrutiny was healthy,” Suarez said. “The delay could end up being healthy as well.”
Mas did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment.