Miami-Dade County

David Beckham picks stadium site next to Marlins Park

dhanks@MiamiHerald.com

David Beckham and his investors plan to start negotiations with Miami to build a soccer stadium on city land next to Marlins Park, rejecting past concerns about a site they now see as having the potential to be a thriving entertainment district.

The University of Miami is not part of the plan, though Beckham partner Marcelo Claure said talks with the college continue to build a big enough stadium to house its football team as well as Major League Soccer.

“Obviously we are in conversations with the University of Miami, but we figured we are running out of time,” Claure told The Miami Herald on Friday. “MLS has been very clear: if we are going to bring soccer to Miami, it needs to be now.”

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado announced the tentative deal at a news conference Friday after a video meeting with Claure. He said he would seek approval from city commissioners to start the talks over how Miami could provide the land for Beckham’s privately-financed stadium.

“This is a milestone,” Regalado told reporters. “We just have to work together.”

In his remarks, Regalado said he favored putting a final deal to city voters in a referendum. A referendum was considered a hurdle in past stadium talks, though similar ballot items have passed easily — such as SkyRise Miami tower on city land next, and a privately-funded expansion of tennis facilities at Miami-Dade’s Crandon Park.

With the Marlins Park site long considered Beckham’s most realistic option, Friday’s announcement brought two news bits of information.

The first: UM not being at the table. The private college has 17 years left in its lease with the Miami Dolphin at Sun Life Stadium, and breaking that deal would be costly. Housing UM also would move Beckham’s 25,000-seat soccer stadium to about 40,000 seats, complicating the budget and design logistics.

On Friday, UM athletic director Blake James said he “will always keep all options open” but emphasized how much the college likes its current home and the renovations underway there.

“It’s an exciting day for soccer fans in the South Florida area. I congratulate them on moving forward,” James said. “With that said, we are in a contract with Sun Life Stadium and are excited to open our season there on Sept. 5, in many ways in a brand new stadium that will enhance our fan experience.”

The second bit of news came in the parameters of what’s needed to build a soccer stadium next to Marlins Park. While there was talk of a costly re-routing of 17th Avenue, Claure said his design firm sees no need for dramatic changes.

“We can fit a stadium perfectly well without having to make major movements of the streets or the avenues around” Marlins Park, Claure told The Herald.

Friday’s events makes official the gradual turn underway by the Beckham team as its public quest for a Miami soccer stadium wraps up its 18th month. The original plans for Marlins Park called for a soccer stadium to go next door, but Beckham and partners last year rejected that area as “spiritually tainted” by backlash over public financing for the baseball park.

When opposition doomed their bids for a waterfront stadium in downtown Miami, the Beckham group gradually relented to pressure to consider the Marlins Park site, where Miami owns large chunks of land. Recent months saw UM host talks with the Beckham group and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez about a possible joint-purpose stadium, raising hopes of MLS fans that momentum had returned.

In his interview, Claure declined to retract the “tainted” remarks made by partner by Simon Fuller in May 2014. But Claure, the CEO of Sprint, embraced the potential of joining the Marlins on a location that he said could be rejuvenated with the combination of two sports.

“We feel extremely good about it,” Claure said. “Because you now have two great properties put together. Our goal is to create an amazing urban park surrounding both stadiums.”

The site in question sits next to Marlins Park, and comprises city-owned lots, a private apartment complex and some commercial property. Marlins Park replaced the Orange Bowl, the football stadium that once housed the Dolphins and, more recently, UM’s Hurricanes squad. Given the nostalgia for the demolished stadium and the unpopularity of the Marlins deal, Beckham’s group and elected officials typically refer to the proposed soccer location as the “former Orange Bowl site.”

Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso said the city would pursue purchasing the private land, or could pursue takeover by eminent domain. He and Regalado said the Beckham group would fund the land acquisition so that the city would only incur the expense of staff time.

Regalado said Beckham’s team will send a proposed framework for the talks to the city, and that city commissioners will be asked to give the go-ahead for negotiations. From there, the discussion will turn to what Miami might ask Beckham for the land it would provide, the cost of private land acquisitions, any infrastructure improvements needed for the site, and the possibly nettlesome issue of ownership of the stadium itself.

In an interview, Regalado said he has not discussed traditional ground rent with Claure but instead is asking for “community benefits” that could include special programs for youth, free tickets for residents and other non-monetary offers. “My ask of Marcelo Claure was to have a lot of public benefits for the City of Miami, and the children of Miami,” Regalado said.

While Miami-Dade and Miami contributed about $490 million in borrowed construction dollars to Marlins Park, and anger over that 2009 arrangement limited what the Beckham group could ask of elected leaders for a soccer stadium. So far, the negotiations have mostly involved securing free or low-cost public land with a privately financed venue. “This is not a Marlins stadium deal,” Regalado said. “That’s my main message.”

One appeal of UM’s partnership was that the non-profit does not pay property tax in Miami-Dade. If Beckham’s team owned the stadium, it would face a property-tax bill in the millions. Even Miami ownership wouldn’t free the stadium of a county tax bill. Gimenez has said Miami-Dade could own the stadium and lease it to Beckham, as it does with the Marlins.

Privately, the Beckham group notes the dicey politics involved in the already prickly topic of stadiums in Miami-Dade County. Regalado’s daughter, Raquel, is challenging Gimenez in 2016, making city-county interactions a ripe venue for scoring (or denying) election-year points.

In a statement after the Regalado news conference, a publicist for the Beckham soccer group sent a statement that said the organization might not be settled on the Marlins Park location.

“Today’s meeting with Mayor Regalado was another positive step toward bringing a world class soccer club to Miami. We’re still in the early planning stages and several viable options still exist, but our preferred stadium location is the former Orange Bowl site,” the statement read. “David, Marcelo and Simon are thrilled by the initial outpouring of support we’ve received from our fans and we’re excited about sharing our plans with the City, County and community soon.”

While other MLS teams secured public financing for soccer stadiums, Beckham is pledging private dollars for a construction tab that could approach $250 million. Beckham’s celebrity, though, secured him a discounted purchase price for what could be the final team franchise that MLS grants for a decade or more. With the lower price, Beckham’s team hopes to compensate for ongoing debt expese that comes with a private construction project.

In the interview, Claure emphasized that Beckham’s option to purchase the MLS franchise would expire, and that other cities were lobbying MLS to let them bid on the team.

“The time is now,” Claure said. “This is the moment of truth.”

Miami Herald staff writer Barry Jackson contributed to this report.

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