Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Despite federal case against developer, Miami Gardens will proceed with Topgolf project

A Topgolf location in Naperville, Illinois. The development in Miami Gardens is being scrutinized due to a developer involved in the deal facing federal wire fraud charges.
A Topgolf location in Naperville, Illinois. The development in Miami Gardens is being scrutinized due to a developer involved in the deal facing federal wire fraud charges. PR NEWSWIRE

For years Miami Gardens has touted the development of a new Topgolf facility in the city. The driving ranges for the multipurpose golfing attraction are under construction and the development is expected to create hundreds of jobs and bring millions of dollars to the area.

Construction began this year, a few months after the City Council approved a land sale in December 2016 allowing the project to proceed. Workers have been building out the main structure over the last few months and the ranges that will house the hitting bays are in place. The site, near the Golden Glades Interchange, had been dormant for several years.

The work is being done under an agreement with a group managed by a Massachusetts attorney and developer who, unbeknownst to city leaders at the time of the approval, had been indicted on federal wire fraud charges involving a Massachusetts housing project about four months earlier.

With the project well under way, city leaders are unlikely to reverse the deal despite the criminal charges.

The situation was first reported by WPLG Channel 10.

James E. Levin, an attorney from Natick, Massachusetts, is the manager of Urban Property Holdings. He was indicted in August for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States and false claims. He was arrested but later released on bail.

He faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $1 million, per charge, for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and for wire fraud charges. Levin is also facing up to an additional 10 years for charges of defrauding and another five years for a false claims charge.

The government also seeks about $2.3 million in forfeitures.

Federal prosecutors allege that Levin and a city of Worcester employee engaged in a fraud scheme from about July 2010 to September 2011 in which Levin requested funds from the city and other state agencies to fix up the Five May Street Apartments, then gave false reports of the project’s progress. Jacklyn Sutcivni, who worked in the city’s housing department, signed off on all the requests despite knowing about the lack of completed work on the project, the indictment says.

Levin and Sutcivni have pleaded not guilty.

According to state records, Levin has been Urban’s manager since 2014 and maintains a post office box in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Urban’s South Florida offices are listed at 1000 Fifth St in Miami Beach.

The development agreement Miami Gardens entered with Urban involved a sale of about 15 acres of city-owned property at the intersection of Northwest Seventh Avenue and State Road 7. Urban is subleasing the property to Topgolf and essentially serving as landlord for the property while Topgolf handles construction.

The sale was for about $4 million, and through the agreement, Miami Gardens will receive about $200,000 in rent over 10 years.

City Manager Cameron Benson said that when he became aware of the charges against Levin, he consulted with City Attorney Sonja Dickens and then reached out to Levin directly.

“I asked him and I said ‘Jim, I have some concerns,’ ” Benson said. “His response was, ‘Cameron, I’m not going to talk about the [case].’ He said ‘You’ve got to talk to my lawyers.’ 

Levin did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment.

Benson said the city conducted background checks and vetted Levin and Topgolf but didn’t find the details of the federal case. He said that if he had been aware of it, the city would have either stopped the deal or structured it in a different way.

“If I would’ve known this guy had been indicted before this council vote, I certainly would not have brought it to council,” Benson said.

The city’s agreement with Urban doesn’t provide any remedies or options for reversing the deal based on moral issues or other concerns between the parties. Urban would be in default if the company failed to make required payments.

“This deal is the deal and we have to move forward,” Benson said.

He said he feels confident in proceeding with the development because Topgolf has not expressed any strong concerns.

Mayor Oliver Gilbert said that he felt the opportunity to bring jobs and a nearby entertainment center for residents would have led the city to proceed with the deal but perhaps not through Levin.

“I think we would’ve investigated to see what the actual allegations were and we would have had a serious conversation with Topgolf,” Gilbert said. “We probably would have looked for ways to engage Topgolf directly.”

The company released a statement saying it remains excited about the new location and estimates it will bring 500 new jobs to the city.

“Topgolf was unaware of this matter at the time we signed the deal. However, this story is about Mr. Levin’s dealings in Massachusetts, not Miami Gardens,” the statement reads. “Topgolf is not involved in Mr. Levin’s business dealings outside of Miami Gardens. We are closely monitoring this story, but we remain excited about opening Topgolf Miami Gardens this winter.”

When completed, the 65,000-square-foot complex will have three stories of driving ranges with 102 hitting bays, a full restaurant and bar and event spaces. The facilities utilize golf balls with digital technology that patrons hit onto targets in the outfield, which is surrounded by netting. The golf balls are tracked; they record statistics that get translated into points for games.

Topgolf anticipates spending about $23 million to build the location. The company has locations in Jacksonville and Tampa and is planning another in Doral. A different company, Prologis, is working with Topgolf to develop the Doral site.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3