Miami-Dade County

After Beckham’s 5-year quest, the next decision on his soccer stadium is up to voters

Rendering of the 25,000-seat soccer stadium proposed for Miami Freedom Park.
Rendering of the 25,000-seat soccer stadium proposed for Miami Freedom Park. Arquitectonica

David Beckham’s five-year odyssey to build a stadium for Miami’s future Major League Soccer franchise will for the first time reach the ballot box this November.

On Wednesday, Miami commissioners voted to hold a November referendum to ask voters if the city should negotiate a no-bid lease with Beckham’s ownership group to build a $1 billion commercial and soccer stadium complex on the city’s only municipal golf course, Melreese Country Club. Voters will decide if the city should make an exception to its competitive bidding law to allow the administration to negotiate the no-bid deal with the Beckham group, a for-profit private entity, to develop 131 acres of public land.

The widely watched vote capped a week of controversy over the preliminary details of the deal, at once highlighting the level of distrust associated with stadium deals in Miami, the excitement among soccer boosters to see a home built for Miami’s MLS team and the fear of First Tee Miami, a well-regarded youth program operated at Melreese, losing its home.

The Beckham group, led locally by billionaire MasTec executive Jorge Mas, wants to lease 73 acres of Melreese to build 1 million square feet of office, retail, and commercial space, 23 acres of public soccer fields, a 10.5 acre 25,000-seat soccer stadium and 750 hotel rooms.

Mas said his group would also pay to clean up the contaminated soil, the remnants of ash dumped on the site from an old city incinerator decades ago. Mas estimates the cleanup will cost less than his budget of $35 million, although others fear it could be significantly more.

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A new 58-acre public park would be built on the rest of the site, and the Beckham group would give the city $20 million in annual installments over the course of 30 years to make improvements to that park or any other park space in the city.

Commissioner Ken Russell, the swing vote on the five-member commission and the reason the commission postponed last week’s vote until Wednesday, voted in favor of sending the issue to the voters after receiving concessions he demanded from the Beckham group, some spoken and some written. The additional provisions include $5 million for the city to complete its Baywalk and Riverwalk projects and a new calculation for lease payments that could trigger greater income for the city.

In Wednesday’s 3-2 vote, commissioners Manolo Reyes and Willy Gort dissented. Gort represents the district that includes Melreese. Counting the votes in favor, he told Mas to go out into his district, particularly the adjacent Grapeland Heights neighborhood, and inform residents of the plan.

“Make them part of the project,” Gort said. “Make them part of the park.”

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The Beckham stadium complex would include 23 acres of public soccer fields on the roof of a covered parking lot. Arquitectonica

Russell’s outstanding sticking point after a late-night meeting that concluded hours before Wednesday’s meeting: a $15 minimum wage for all employees at Miami Freedom Park.

Mas offered a verbal concession, with a caveat. He pledged to pay all employees of the team ownership the living wage, including janitorial staff, groundskeepers, stadium workers, etc. He also agreed to mandate a living wage from his tenants who would lease commercial space in the development, though that would begin at $11 in the first year and increase annually until it reaches $15.

After Mas’ comments, Russell said he would vote yes on holding the referendum.

“I had resigned myself to voting no,” Russell said during the break, describing his thoughts after meeting with Mas. “All the issues I demanded concessions for were issues the residents had brought for me.”

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Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell AL DIAZ

Through much of the morning meeting, Reyes was the most vocal critic of the proposal, specifically the process the city has followed to get a referendum on the ballot. He repeatedly lambasted the city’s handling of the whole affair, decrying the lack of lengthy public vetting and asking his fellow commissioners to consider holding a different referendum — one where voters would decide if the city should put the Melreese out for a competitive bid. He found no takers for that pitch.

“We are circumventing our own statutes, our own laws,” he told commissioners, hours after the city was served a lawsuit by an attorney accusing the city of doing just that. Circuit Judge Reemberto Diaz has scheduled a hearing next Tuesday on that suit, which was filed by William Douglas Muir on his own behalf.

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Intense skepticism and outright opposition have swirled around the proposal, largely because of the rushed process to present the plan to the public during the last few weeks. Mas shared scant details only days before scheduled votes, and city officials did not demand many particulars during that time.

Even before Wednesday’s vote, a new term sheet was released by the city late Tuesday afternoon, and the full agenda documentation for Wednesday’s meeting was published online overnight.

Russell emphasized that his vote only supports sending the question to voters, adding that residents shouldn’t ease up on their scrutiny. He expects more details of the plan to be released before the November vote to address voters’ concerns.

“Stay skeptical. They should be. I remain skeptical,” he said. “We have a history of bad deals in Miami.”

If the referendum passes in November, Beckham’s odyssey will continue. The City Commission would still have to approve a no-bid lease with the Beckham group with a supermajority vote, meaning four of five commissioners. Mas needed only three votes Wednesday, meaning he would have to convince Reyes or Gort to support him should the process get that far.

Before voting in favor, Commissioner Joe Carollo described the referendum as a preliminary step toward a tougher negotiation where he intends to push Mas for more benefits for the city.

“This deal is far from being over on what they’ve offered to us in the city,” Carollo said.

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Jorge Mas listens during a special meeting at Miami City Hall to follow up on the Beckham-Melreese stadium proposal on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. AL DIAZ

After the vote, Mas attributed the skepticism about his pitch to the public financing deal that paid for Marlins Park — and left taxpayers on the hook for nearly $2 billion in loan payments.

“They’ve tainted this community that’s led to a lot of mistrust with anything having to do with this type of project,” he said. “That’s why from the very beginning, I’ve always said this has to be the anti-Marlins deal and tried to do everything in a different fashion, in a different way.”

After a clumsy rollout of his vision,the public and the press lamented the lack of specifics, questioned the provisions available in hard-to-obtain public documents and wondered if Mas, the city or both were missing or obscuring crucial details while laying out the framework of the deal.

Many critics of the process chimed in on social media and in public comments during the last week, blasting the city’s approach to deal-making, calling Mas’ promises empty and predicting big problems for the city should the plan move forward, such as hidden or unforeseen costs.

When asked if the ownership group would pay for all necessary utility work, underground infrastructure, road improvements and a pedestrian bridge over the Tamiami Canal to connect the park to the Miami Intermodal Center, Mas responded: “The answer is yes.”

Interest in Melreese as a stadium site is not new.

Former Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso told the Herald his administration at one point took a look at the golf course for just a stadium and a parking lot, though it was never a serious consideration because of problems with losing park space and lack of support from former Mayor Tomas Regalado.

“The thought of taking public space and giving it to a private use for the purposes of a soccer stadium, without a competitive bid process that would yield the highest and best use value to the city, was not something that we considered prudent,” Alfonso wrote in an email.

That changed when Mas and his brother Jose Mas joined the Beckham ownership group last fall. They were Beckham’s first local investors. Shortly afterwards, they began pushing to drop the group’s existing deal to build a stadium on nine acres in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood.

Jorge Mas called the site too cramped, with no room for parking, much less the office park and mall proposed for Melreese. The Overtown land includes three acres of county-owned real estate the Beckham group has under contract for $9 million but is the subject of a lawsuit over that no-bid deal.

Commission Chairman Keon Hardemon, whose district includes Overtown, said he prefers a referendum on the Melreese site rather than simply allowing a stadium to be built in Overtown — a neighborhood that has vocally opposed it. He also extolled the value of for-profit businesses creating jobs, adding he will have his own requests of the Beckham group.

“I look forward to being able to address more of our housing issues,” he said.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who doesn’t have a vote, championed the proposal, urging commissioners to call for a referendum and let the voters decide.

“At the end of the day, that’s the beauty of democracy,” he said. “If the voters are given the right to decide, they will ultimately decide what they want to do with their property.”

Commissioners approved this question that will appear on the November ballot for Miami voters:

Proposed Charter Amendment for the Lease and development of a soccer stadium and commercial complex.

Shall Miami’s Charter be amended authorizing City to negotiate and execute 99-year lease with Miami Freedom Park LLC, for approximately 73 acres of City land, waiving bidding, converting Melreese Country Club (1400 Northwest 37 Avenue) at no cost to city to:

soccer stadium;

minimum 1,000,000 square feet of office, retail, and commercial uses;

minimum 750 hotel rooms;

$3,577,365 minimum annual rent;

$20,000,000 for 58-acre public park or other green space?

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks and David Smiley contributed to this report.