The debate over Miami Freedom Park, the plan to build a $1 billion retail, hotel and Major League Soccer stadium complex on Miami’s only city-owned golf course, is expected to climax Oct. 24 when commissioners consider a lease that would allow the redevelopment but that city administrators say might not be in any shape to vote on.
At the same time, the commission could consider opening up Melreese golf course to any willing bidders.
In a messy show of political divisions among Miami’s elected leaders, two commissioners on Thursday separately demanded the Oct. 24 vote on a contract that administrators do not believe will be ready and another vote on whether the city should solicit other redevelopment plans for Melreese. The mayor, a proponent of the stadium plan, said he’d use his veto pen if the commission votes on a deal he feels isn’t ready.
A showdown with ramifications for the future of South Florida’s upcoming MLS team, Inter Miami, is set. Much like the summer 2018 vote to put the preliminary terms of the deal to a referendum, the Oct. 24 vote could prove a pivotal moment for Inter Miami and a large tract of public land next to Miami International Airport.
The proposed 131-acre complex, called Miami Freedom Park, would include a 58-acre park, a mall, office park, hotel and 25,000-seat stadium for home games played by Inter Miami, the Major League Soccer team that will be co-owned by David Beckham, local businessman Jorge Mas and other partners. Mas hopes to lease Melreese golf course for 99 years to build the complex.
At Thursday’s commission meeting, the loudest opponent of the stadium plan, Commissioner Manolo Reyes, demanded the city staff bring back a contract for the second meeting of the month so the commission can vote it up or down. He overrode the reservations of City Manager Emilio Gonzalez and Mayor Francis Suarez, who said there is still more work to be done — including land appraisals — before a fully negotiated deal can be brought to a vote.
The demand was not completely unexpected — earlier this year, a majority of commissioners voted to pressure city administrators to bring a lease back for a vote by September. Reyes’ directive, though, surprisingly came at the end of a commission meeting where the Miami Freedom Park was not even listed on the agenda.
The rifts among City Hall’s most powerful men showed as Reyes angrily accused the administration of purposefully slow-walking the negotiation so that the deal has a better chance of passing. Another critic of the plan, Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort, is term-limited this year. The November municipal election will decide who will succeed him.
Earlier this year, Gort said he had not seen anything regarding the proposal that would convince him it was good for the city. Reyes, who has stated he’s an unwavering “no” on the item, suspects Suarez would rather count on the election of a commissioner who might support the deal. The contract will require at least four votes of the five-member commission.
“It’s obvious there is some strategy there,” Reyes said.
Suarez pushed back by reminding Reyes and the rest of the commission that they took months to select the two law firms that are negotiating on behalf of the city. Suarez also pointed out that the commission chose to weigh in on the process for selecting firms to conduct outside studies that would form the basis of negotiations, decisions that took time over the summer and have decreased the likelihood of a contract being ready before the election.
Suarez, a vocal supporter of the proposal since the Beckham team announced it last year, denied there had been any coordinated effort to stall the vote. He noted that the deadline for city staffers and commissioners to submit items for the Oct. 24 agenda is noon Friday and said he doubted a cogent contract could be produced by then.
“This commission mandated that there be three outside studies done: environmental, traffic report and an appraisal,” he said. “None of those are completed, and they will not be completed by tomorrow.”
Suarez also pledged to veto the commission’s Oct. 24 vote.
City Attorney Victoria Mendez said the agenda might be published with a draft of a contract that will change by Oct. 24.
Commissioner Joe Carollo, one of Suarez’s political foes, also wants to vote on a resolution that would authorize a request for proposals to redevelop most of Melreese, with a corner of the property set aside for a soccer stadium. Carollo has previously stated he thought the site should be redeveloped into a shopping mall.
When Suarez said he didn’t understand Carollo’s request, Carollo needled the mayor with a reference to Suarez’s failed attempt to convince voters in 2018 to make him a “strong mayor,” the city’s top administrator, through a referendum.
“Well let me call you lord mayor so you get even happier ... “ Carollo started.
“Listen, be respectful,” Suarez said. “Be respectful.”
“I am being respectful,” Carollo responded.
“No you’re not being respectful,” Suarez said, raising his voice.
They started shouting over each other as Ken Russell, the commission chairman, tried to bring the meeting to a close. The snarky insults, loud voices and general tension have become more common in recent months as commissioners have squared off on contentious items.
The future of Melreese and the scale and potential impact of Miami Freedom Park, a proposal that was rolled out in a rushed fashion that attracted deep skepticism from opponents in the summer of 2018, is among the most divisive topics to be considered at City Hall this year.
In November 2018, 60 percent of voters endorsed a broad framework of a lease and chose to allow the city to skip its normal bidding process to negotiate a long-term lease with one entity, a company owned by Mas that would act as the leaseholder.
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Mas did not comment on the pressing deadline to deliver a lease to the commission other than to say his team is working “diligently” on the negotiation.
“Miami Freedom Park is working diligently to finalize a lease agreement with the city of Miami,” Mas said. “Sixty percent of city of Miami residents, an overwhelming majority, voted to amend the city charter and authorized the city to negotiate with Miami Freedom Park; we remain focused on fulfilling that voter mandate.”
Gonzalez told commissioners there are still unresolved terms between Miami Freedom Park and the city. According a top administrator, without completed appraisals and a peer review of those appraisals, a fair market rate rent cannot be determined.
“We will continue to work as fast as we can, as hard as we can, to get the residents of Miami the best deal that we can,” Gonzalez said, after the meeting.
The parties could be far apart on other items, from profit sharing to the stadium’s naming rights to the amount of park acreage Mas would need to replace elsewhere in the city. Another major question: How much will it cost to clean up environmental contamination at the golf course, the former dumping site for toxic ash from an old municipal incinerator?
After the rocky end to Thursday’s hearing, Russell homed in on the parks issue — a city law requires parkland that is rezoned to be replaced, so there is no net loss to the city.
“If this deal yields the loss of one acre of green space in the city of Miami, I will vote no,” he said.