Let’s talk facts before we talk soccer stadium

On July 12, the Miami City Commission delayed a vote on whether to put a soccer stadium project, pushed by David Beckham and Jorge Mas on the November ballot. Commissioners are revisiting the matter on Wednesday.
On July 12, the Miami City Commission delayed a vote on whether to put a soccer stadium project, pushed by David Beckham and Jorge Mas on the November ballot. Commissioners are revisiting the matter on Wednesday.

Give ’em this: Team Beckham is thinking big. No small ball for them. They’re going for the whole magillah, the big enchilada, the full monty. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is all in, too.

But they’re pressing too hard and moving too fast on “Miami Freedom Park” without providing all the necessary facts or vetting their complex financial projections. Miami Commissioner Ken Russell was right to “pump the brakes,” as he put it, on the runaway train that tried to speed through Miami City Hall Thursday night. Too much is at stake to rush a decision and commit a blunder that Miami would have to live with in perpetuity. And be impossible to undo.

David Beckham, a genuinely nice guy who’s waited four and a half years to realize his dream of a soccer stadium in Miami for his MLS team, can wait another week or two. So can the real visionary (and main money man) behind the Miami Freedom Park project and another good guy, Jorge Mas.

Here’s why they need to slow down. The Melreese golf course, just east of Miami International Airport, is the last, large piece of public green space in the city of Miami. As such, it’s value is priceless. Since 1942 it’s been a public golf course and, by all accounts, a pretty good one — even if it was built on a layer of incinerator ash. Russell says it’s been remediated to levels that allow for golf; nobody knows how much remediation is needed for a large commercial development like the one Team Beckham is proposing. The project shouldn’t go forward until either the extent of soil toxicity is known and the approximate cost to fix it. Or Mas could simply say he’ll fix it no matter how much it costs.

Mas and his partners have released a blizzard of financial projections, but as far as I can tell they haven’t been independently verified. “Trust, but verify” should be the watchphrase here. Mas claims they’d pay $44 million in city, county, state and school district taxes, which would be a welcome windfall. Putting most of the Melreese property back on the tax rolls would be great. At the same time, Mas says Miami Freedom Park, when built out, would generate $425 million a year in revenue, a princely sum. For the use of the land Mas would pay the city $3.6 million a year, which he calls “fair market value.”

Is it?

Megadeveloper Jorge Perez weighed in this weekend from Italy. He says Mas is low-balling the city. “It’s bad enough turning the little open space we have left for the gain of a few wealthy individuals,” Perez wrote, “but to give it away for a ridiculous sum is unconscionable.” Strong words.

I know and respect Jorge Mas, who with his brother Jose, has grown MasTec into a powerhouse Fortune 500 company. Jorge wanted to buy the Marlins when Jeffrey Loria was selling, but got shut out. Now, it appears he wants to be part-owner of Beckham’s MLS franchise and make that his legacy. He’s adamant that the soccer stadium at Miami Freedom Park would be privately paid for. But if he’s getting the use of priceless city land at less than fair market value, then the public would in effect be subsiding the stadium, along with the rest of the development.

David Beckham came to Miami nearly five years ago and said this is the city where he wanted to field his MLS team, which he’d been awarded at a deep discount, because of his genuine star power. All he needed, he said, was a little help finding the perfect location for a stadium. From the get-go, Beckham said he and his partners would pay for it. Their quest for waterfront property and sites inland came up empty — until Mas got involved. He rejected the provisional Overtown site as undesirable and cast his eye on the Melreese property. But to make it work financially they had to add 400,000 square feet of office space, a 750-room hotel, big retail tenants and a bunch of restaurants and entertainment venues. And, oh yes, a 25-thousand seat stadium. It’s the tail wagging the dog.

This could all still work out, but it can’t be rushed. Hanging like a toxic cloud over the discussion is Marlins Park, the stadium deal from hell. The public is wary of another bad stadium deal and justifiably so. Which means Beckham, Mas and company need to explain their plan more fully and more transparently. And while they’re at it, please explain how their project’s main entrance on LeJeune Road — packed at almost any hour of the day or night — could accommodate all the traffic heading into and out of Miami Freedom Park.

Answers, we need answers. If and when the Miami Commission gets them, then and only then put it on the ballot.