On a makeshift stage at Regatta Park next to Miami City Hall on Thursday, David Beckham took a microphone from MasTec executive Jorge Mas to fire up a crowd of over 100 people ahead of a public hearing on the possibility of bringing a Major League Soccer stadium to Miami.
“No matter what,” Beckham told the screaming fans, “we’re coming to Miami. Simple as that.”
Moments later, the brigade of supporters led by the Southern Legion fan group marched next door to City Hall, singing and chanting in support of Mas and Beckham’s proposed stadium and commercial development at Melreese Country Club.
Inside, after a public hearing that lasted nearly four hours, Beckham spoke soberly to the five city commissioners who ultimately will kill the stadium plan or ask voters for a change in city law that would allow them to approve it without seeking competitive bids for use of the public land.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve walked into a room and not had people smile at me. ... It’s not a nice feeling,” Beckham said. “I’m not homegrown, but this is becoming my home and it will become my home.”
In an odd arrangement of the agenda, the Beckham group didn’t make its presentation until after the public hearing, even though only sketchy details were available for the public on comment on. At 6 p..m., Mas launched a presentation in which Beckham, Perez and others revealed more details.
The Beckham team made a point of contrasting its financial plan with that of Marlins Park, which was built mostly with public money. Attorney Richard Perez of Holland & Knight said that in his first meeting with Mas, Mas insisted the deal for the soccer complex could not be anything like the Marlins deal. Not one dollar of public money will be spent on construction, Perez said, and the Beckham team will pay property taxes.
At 7:30 p.m., the commission was just beginning its discussion.
The day began early for some of the people who came to voice support for or opposition to the plans. Scores of supporters of the youth golf program First Tee Miami, which is housed at Melreese, had packed the Miami City Hall chambers early in the morning, decked out in orange shirts and prepared to voice their opposition to a soccer stadium at Melreese. Some told the Miami Herald they arrived as early as 5:15 a.m., packing rows of seats in the commission chambers. They said they expected close to 200 people to show up to oppose the proposal, which would uproot First Tee.
Tanya Eathakotti, an 18-year-old graduate of the First Tee program who now works as an instructor at Melreese, told the Miami Herald she feels like First Tee is a second home, where she learned more than just how to play golf. She pointed to the program’s “core values,” saying she wouldn’t be an outgoing leader of other youths if it weren’t for First Tee.
Jorge Mas has said he’s committed to keeping First Tee on the Melreese site, but it would be housed at a golf entertainment facility such as Top Golf.
Eathakotti isn’t convinced. She thinks the ambiance, space and staff of Melreese are important to First Tee’s success.
“Being at Melreese is something different than being at a golf entertainment center,” she said.
Ralphy Sans, 13, was sitting in the front row of the commission chambers with his parents before the meeting began. Sans said First Tee provides necessary academic tutoring, scholarships and personal guidance.
“It’s not all golf,” he said.
At Regatta Park next door to the commission chambers, organizers and friends of Fútbol Miami MLS arrived early in the day, set up a tailgate party and prepared a stage for Beckham. The soccer star and Mas arrived around 1:30 p.m. with a fleet of black vehicles.
Mas spoke first, telling the group that Beckham “didn’t have to choose our city,” but could have chosen any city in the United States for his soccer team.
“We’re going to make fútbol a reality for Miami ... We want to uplift every resident in the city of Miami ... We’re going to do great things for Miami,” Mas said.
Beckham followed. “We have always said that this team is your team,” he said. The team is coming to Miami, he said, because “we believe in you guys, we believe in these young kids.”
Then about 100 supporters marched over to City Hall, which quickly reached capacity shortly after 2 p.m., as supporters, opponents and the curious jammed the building and the City Commission began a long session of presentations, debate, public comment and potentially a decision on whether to ask voters to amend the city charter to pave the way for the stadium complex. The audience overflowed into the lobby, where people listened to speakers that broadcast what was going on inside.
Many lined up to speak in support of the Beckham plan, arguing it caters to children who need fields to play soccer, create jobs and give Miami’s MLS team a home.
“Soccer helps fuel our community,” said Lauren Paulet, a university student who grew up in Miami Lakes. She argued that the soccer has a an important place in Miami’s immigrant communities, and voters should be able to make the call in the end.
“Let us all decide in the voting booth,” she said..
Those opposed to the stadium included children, parents and former Major League Baseball pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who donned an orange First Tee polo and said he volunteers for the program. Many offered personal testimonials of their positive experiences with First Tee, including academic tutoring, golf scholarships, and long-lasting friendships.
Daniel Prenat, a Miami resident and director of operations for Soccer Marketing and Promotions, which organizes soccer events in South Florida, said he believed the Melreese plan would be great for the city.
“It’s not just a soccer stadium,” Prenat said. “It’s commercial retail space, and I heard that it was going to be a hotel and a public park.”
Prenat added that the Mas group has said the project would be privately funded, unlike the Marlins Park deal a decade ago. Plus, Prenat said, the proposal would add soccer fields at Melreese that the city’s youth soccer leagues sorely need.
“We have one complex with five fields in Kendall, and one complex with six fields in Hialeah, and that’s it,” he said. “We don’t have any complexes that are bigger, and that really limits youth soccer in the area.”
Tyrone Sandaal, whose 13-year-old daughter plays for a travel soccer team in Coral Gables, echoed Prenat’s view that Miami could use more fields. But he said he was on the fence about the proposal, noting a lack of transparency in the process and a fear that taxpayers could still foot the bill.
“Like everybody else in Miami, we’re still kind of freaked out by the Marlins deal,” Sandaal said. “It seems like a lot of it’s happening behind closed doors. I get the feeling that some of it is almost like a foregone conclusion.”