Pink and black smoke wafted to the stage as retired soccer star David Beckham stood before several hundred joyous fans, struggling for words when it became clear he had scored the biggest victory yet on his quest to field a Major League Soccer team in Miami.
Surrounded by the team colors for Inter Miami, the soon-to-be-formed MLS team for Miami, the man whose celebrity has fueled hype around the team got on the mic.
“What can I say other than thank you ... gracias ... what can I say?” Beckham said.
Beckham and his partners, including Miami businessmen Jorge and Jose Mas, cleared a major hurdle Tuesday when about 60 percent of voters endorsed plans to transform a city-owned golf course into Miami Freedom Park, a massive stadium and commercial complex. Now the ownership group has permission to negotiate a lease of city land next to Miami International Airport, currently home to Melreese golf course, for a 73-acre redevelopment that would include a 25,000-seat stadium, at least 750 hotel rooms and at least 1 million square feet of office, retail and commercial space. Owners also agreed to fund a 58-acre public park next to the complex.
But the deal will require four out of five votes from city commissioners, and those votes were far from assured.
The ownership group celebrated from the Douglas Entrance courtyard in Coral Gables on Tuesday, joined by Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a strong supporter of the plan who helped broker the proposal earlier this year.
“This is a deal where the citizens are going to get fair market value rent. This is going to be privately funded. We’re going to get a 60-acre park, 23 acres of soccer field and an MLS team headed by Jorge Mas and David Beckham, who just care so much for the city,” Suarez said. “I mean, it could not be a better deal for the residents of the city of Miami.“
About 40 percent of voters thought otherwise. Since Melreese was considered as a location for the stadium, the concept stirred controversy and sparked multiple lawsuits. Critics framed the proposal as a lucrative land grab dressed up as a necessary project to give MLS a home in Miami. They defended the value of Melreese, particularly a youth golf and mentoring program housed there called First Tee Miami, and blasted the rushed process that led to the referendum.
When commissioners voted to place the question on the November ballot after only days of considering preliminary lease terms, several questions remained unanswered. Among them: The true cost of cleaning up toxic soil underneath Melreese, dirt contaminated with ash from an old municipal incinerator.
Those questions will remain as the city officials and team owners begin lease negotiations.
“We’ll start that tomorrow,” said Jorge Mas.
The pro-stadium campaign benefited from strong support from soccer fans who have longed for an MLS team throughout Beckham’s five-year odyssey to field a side in South Florida. After running through multiple possible sites over the years, including land in Overtown that ownership purchased, Melreese became the top choice earlier in 2018 after Jorge Mas, chairman of infrastructure giant MasTec, joined the fold in late 2017. Mas argued a stadium needed surrounding development to be profitable.
Wearing a pink dress shirt as he addressed the celebration party, Mas claimed victory.
“We won tonight,” he said, eliciting cheers from the crowd. “We showed the world what Miami can do.”
Beckham, the Mas brothers and fellow owners, including Sprint chairman Marcelo Claure and SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son, needed voter approval to skip a public bidding process and negotiate a no-bid lease for the development, which the group named Miami Freedom Park. The ownership spent nearly $900,000 on the campaign, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
For the owners and soccer proponents, it paid off. But Tuesday’s vote does not guarantee a stadium.
The lease still needs approval from four of five city commissioners — which might be a long shot, given strong opposition from at least two commissioners.
“It’s a bad deal,” said Commissioner Willy Gort, whose district includes Melreese. “It’s a real estate deal, and they’re using the stadium as a hook.”
In July, Gort and Commissioner Manolo Reyes voted against placing the referendum on the ballot. On Monday, they both told the Herald they had not been swayed and they hoped the referendum would fail.
“If they want a stadium, they should go buy land and build a stadium,” Reyes said.
Beckham acknowledged there were residents who remain unconvinced, and there is still work to be done to reach a final agreement.
“Everybody has their right to their opinion. At the end of the day, that’s why there’s a vote. That’s why there’s a yes and a no,” he said. “But tonight, we were successful. We had amazing support and an amazing team that put this together. The hurdles are not over yet. We still have things to clear up over these next few years, but I think we’re in a good place.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber called Tuesday a “historic day for the sport in our country, and another building block in our vision to become a soccer nation.”
“Inter Miami CF’s plan for a world-class soccer stadium as the keystone for Miami Freedom Park will help transform the city of Miami and be a hub for soccer fans from all over South Florida,” Garber said, in a statement. “On behalf of all of us at Major League Soccer, we thank the community for its support, and Miami city officials for their leadership. We also thank Jorge and Jose Mas, David Beckham and Marcelo Claure for their hard work and deep belief in MLS. We look forward to Inter Miami CF’s launch in 2020.”
Garber’s comments mark how far Beckham’s efforts have come. At one point, plans for a Miami team were barely on life support after delays and squabbles over stadium sites kept derailing the awarding of a franchise. When the Mas brothers joined the ownership group, the league gave Miami a team and a deadline — Jorge Mas has said he has to have building permits for a stadium by November 2019.
On Tuesday, a majority of voters put the ownership team a step closer to making that happen. While effusive in thanking supporters, Jorge Mas credited his family’s stature in the community for pushing the referendum in the team’s favor.
“We brought him over the finish line. We’re the local group. We’re the local family,” he said. “I think we helped him push it through.”