Miami-Dade County

What goes on at Melreese park and why are some opposed to giving up golf for soccer?

The City of Miami Melreese golf course will be closed down after an environmental study revealed unsafe levels of arsenic and other pollutants in the soil. The study was done for the would-be developers of a stadium and commercial complex for David Beckham’s soccer team.
The City of Miami Melreese golf course will be closed down after an environmental study revealed unsafe levels of arsenic and other pollutants in the soil. The study was done for the would-be developers of a stadium and commercial complex for David Beckham’s soccer team.

Less than a mile away from the bustling Miami International Airport, the small green hills of Melreese Country Club stand solemnly. Some call this place a sanctuary. Here, amidst flying golf balls, time goes by at its own pace: Kids practice at the driving range, adults enjoy cool beverages at the restaurant’s terrace, and golf carts play hide-and-seek along the grassy dunes.

That typically quiet nature was disrupted Tuesday night, when 40 golf carts were engulfed in flames. A suspect was arrested Wednesday and was charged with single counts of arson and burglary of an unoccupied structure. A spokesperson at Melreese said the destruction did not disrupt park activities.

But the overall Melreese property remains a hot topic as residents and city leaders tangle over whether the golf course should be demolished to make way for the construction of a soccer stadium and a large commercial center. The site would be home to a Major League Soccer franchise owned by retired soccer superstar David Beckham and his partners, including well-known Miami brothers Jorge and Jose Mas.

Earlier this month, Beckham’s soccer group persuaded the Miami City Commission to put on the November ballot the question of whether Melreese should be developed as a soccer and retail complex.

If voters say yes, it will allow the city to negotiate a deal that could end a five-year battle to get a Major League Soccer stadium built in Miami. In this case, Melreese Country Club would disappear. Before that could happen, a lease would need approval from four of the city’s five commissioners.

The issue has been contentious with critics decrying developing 131 acres of public land for a for-profit private project. Supporters contend the project will bring professional soccer to Miami and economic development to the Grapeland neighborhood around Miami International Airport.

The billion-dollar investment would yield not only up to 11,000 jobs, but also would create more than $40 million in tax revenue for the city, according to Beckham’s ownership group.

But critics argue that getting rid of a public green space would bring an end to Miami’s First Tee program, where 5,000 children are enrolled throughout the year. There, they are taught golf and the core values that go with it, as well as academic tutoring, park officials said.

“It’s a shame what they are going to do,” says Rudy Ariano, user of the Melreese facilities and coach of The Doral Academy varsity golf team, for which his daughter Camila plays. “They are going to squash something good.”

Beckham’s group has said that the First Tee program would still have a place in the new development. But those who use the facilities aren’t ready to let go.

Camila Ariano has been going to Melreese since she was 7, when she joined the First Tee. For her, everybody at this place is “like family.”

“I know the chefs, the waiters, the people who pick up the balls, I know everybody,” she says. “The atmosphere is very homey.”

Camila recalls the day she beat her dad at golf for the first time. She ran to the golf store and shared the moment with her friend Jenny, the store clerk: “Jenny, Jenny, I beat my dad!”

Ariano and his daughter love a sport considered elitist by some, they say.

“I heard some people in the media saying that we were millionaires. I’m not a millionaire, none of these kids is a millionaire,” says Ariano, referring to the First Tee program, which offers scholarships to some children.

Professional golfer Erik Compton walks back to his golf cart at Melreese Country Club on July 17, 2018. Marta Oliver Craviotto

Although professional golf player Erik Compton acknowledges that “golf can be pretentious,” he emphasizes the fact that “this place is not.” The 38-year-old sportsman learned to golf here when he was 7, and every day he is not competing somewhere else, he enjoys playing at Melreese.

As Compton strolls along the place that helped him hone his skills as a golfer, children often stop him for a selfie. “I’m afraid people won’t have the opportunity I had to play in a public golf course,” he says.

Compton, who received two heart transplants at Jackson Memorial Hospital, says that Melreese’s survival should not be linked to its profitability.

“Should we get rid of Jackson Memorial Hospital because they’re not making a profit?” he says. “Is it about how much money this makes or about how many lives if affects?”

Alley Jackman, a Melreese golfer, was introduced to the sport as a teenager, thanks to her father. “Now that he’s no longer with me,” says the 19-year-old, “this place has helped me through my hardest moments.”

The Melreese Country Club, a golf course run by a private company on a city park, sits on the site where David Beckham and partners want to build a soccer stadium as part of a $1 billion park, hotel and commercial complex. PATRICK FARRELL Miami Herald File

Jackman says she is one of the few people who has actually been involved in all of the country club’s facilities: the restaurant, the pro shop, the prestige golf office and the First Tee Program.

“It’s not a country club, it’s a lot more than that,” she says. “It’s almost like ... a sanctuary.”

Follow Luis Antonio Hernández (@LAHOM64) and Marta Oliver Craviotto (@MartaOCraviotto) on Twitter