‘The voters will know every single detail about the lease,’ says Jorge Mas before Miami commissioners vote on his stadium prospect
The owners of Miami’s future Major League Soccer franchise expect to spend $35 million on cleaning up contamination at Melreese Country Club, the site they hope to redevelop into a large commercial complex with a soccer stadium and park.
David Beckham’s local ownership partner, MasTec executive Jorge Mas, shared his projection Monday when he presented the Miami Herald’s Editorial Board with his billion-dollar vision for building an office park, hotel, retail complex and 25,000-seat soccer stadium on 73 acres at Melreese.
Mas’ bold presentation before commissioners Thursday contrasted with his more conciliatory tone Monday during a 90-minute interview with the Herald two days before commissioners will consider holding a referendum for voters to decide if they want to change city law so the administration could negotiate a no-bid land lease with the Beckham group to build Miami Freedom Park.
Days after his plan stumbled, the billionaire businessman is making concessions to critics and commissioners while promising to personally court homeowners in Grapeland Heights, the neighborhood directly east of Melreese. He said he’s working with residents to organize large community meetings where he’ll walk homeowners through his vision.
He also wants to woo Commissioner Willy Gort, whose district includes Melreese and whose vote Mas would need later on if voters approve the Freedom Park plan in a referendum. Should that happen, any lease with the city would require approval from four of five commissioners. Putting the referendum on the ballot requires only three votes.
As far as cleaning up the soil contaminated by arsenic — believed to be ash from incinerators dumped there decades ago — Mas said an exact clean-up figure won’t be known until September because his team needs to study the site further. He anticipates $35 million should be enough — though he said a worst-case scenario could make that figure swell to $50 million.
If his budget won’t cover the cost, he said, he pledged not to ask Miami’s taxpayers to make up the difference.
“No. We’d look for the federal and state contributions,” he said.
During the interview, Mas also said his group would agree to pay the city a percentage of its revenue from operations, a key concession demanded by Commissioner Ken Russell during Thursday’s commission meeting, when Russell succeeded in delaying the referendum vote. The additional revenue is expected to bolster the $3.5 million in minimum rent payments under the proposed lease terms, along with projected tax boosts to state, local and city coffers.
If commissioners decline to hold a referendum or if the stadium plan fails at the ballot box, Mas said he would have to turn back to building a stadium in Overtown — an option he already rejected once.
Mas’ statements confirmed more details and changes that have been made to the proposal since Thursday, mostly concessions to objections commissioners raised at that meeting. Miami commissioners will again take up the controversial vote at 10 a.m. Wednesday at City Hall.
Mas needs three votes from commissioners to get Miami Freedom Park on the ballot. Dozens of opponents and supporters testified during Thursday’s marathon hearing, when it became clear Mas did not have the votes. Some of the questions and criticisms were raised just before the anticipated vote because owners shared few details until then.
Russell asked to postpone the vote so the city could negotiate terms with the Beckham group. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a vocal supporter of the plan, told the Herald he appreciated the pressure being placed on him and the rest of the city to vet the concept before the commission’s vote.
“I think the scrutiny has been healthy,” he said.
Among the criticisms aimed at the Beckham group: The planning process has been rushed, and the public has been given too little information to properly analyze the proposal before the commission considers a referendum.
Mas responded by saying he is feeling pressure from MLS to get a stadium plan in motion soon or risk losing the franchise.
“We have to get a stadium decision on the ballot as quickly as possible because per the expansion agreement with Major League Soccer, I have to start construction by October 2019,” he said. “If construction doesn’t start in October 2019, I’m technically in default of the expansion agreement. That puts the team at risk from coming to Miami.”
Mas and Suarez repeatedly drew distinctions between the Melreese proposal and the deal for construction of publicly financed Marlins Park, an agreement that has left taxpayers on the hook for nearly $2 billion in loan payments. Both men emphasized the ownership group’s plan to privately finance construction of the whole complex, to pay taxes and lease payments, and to give the city 1 percent of the gross proceeds from any capital transactions on the site — another new provision secured after pressure from Russell on Thursday.
There are clear differences between the Melreese proposal and the Marlins Park debacle, but the Beckham group has attracted another line of criticism for its approach, some of it from notable names.
At the heart of Beckham’s pursuit of a stadium for his Miami MLS team is a big real estate deal, of which the stadium is only a small part. The allure of developing a new home for an MLS franchise and energy from soccer fans eager to cheer for a hometown team can easily obscure a massive proposed land deal that could transform more than half of a city-owned golf course into one of Miami’s largest retail centers.
Over the weekend, Miami developer Jorge Pérez, CEO of Related Group, emailed Russell with his concerns over the proposed minimum rent rate.
“It is bad enough turning the little open space we have left for the gain of a few wealthy individuals, but to give it away for a ridiculous sum is unconscionable,” he wrote.
The email was quickly circulated to the news media, prompting a reporter from real estate news site The Real Deal to ask Pérez if he was interested in bidding for such a project. Perez copied other news outlets, including the Herald, on his response.
“By the way, I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO INTEREST in bidding or participating in Melrose,” he wrote.
During Monday’s interview, Mas stated his view that stadiums are not economic generators on their own. This one, he said, can only succeed with the commercial development proposed around it. At one point, he even said “This isn’t about soccer,” but about his family leaving a legacy in Miami.
But the CEO of a company that builds infrastructure and does engineering, founded by his father decades ago, rebuffed the notion that he is becoming a player in putting together big real estate deals.
“I’m not a developer,” he said.