Greg Cote

Let voters decide! Why Beckham group's soccer stadium plan deserves to be on ballot

Proposed rendering of Miami Freedom Park near Miami International Airport, where the Major League Soccer  team's new stadium would be built.
Proposed rendering of Miami Freedom Park near Miami International Airport, where the Major League Soccer team's new stadium would be built.

It would be called Miami Freedom Park, and the name is perfect. It suits the city where so many dreamed so much of the freedom 90 miles away that they only risked everything, everything, to go find it.

The Miami City Commission this week will have its own chance to exercise freedom by allowing its people their voice when it comes to the future of Major League Soccer in Miami and whether a stadium complex will be built where the Melreese golf course now stands.

Let the voters decide.

Do not aim to speak for them or, worse, to silence them.

Let. The. Voters. Decide.

City commissioners, allow the Miami Freedom Park/soccer stadium referendum on the November ballot when you vote at Thursday's meeting whether to do so.

Let the two sides make their case in the coming months, then let the people have the final say.

That sounds a little bit like democracy, doesn't it? Like the opposite of the tyranny so many of our neighbors fled Cuba to escape?

Jorge Mas, whose deep pockets and deep Miami roots balance David Beckham's glamorous sizzle to front the MLS Miami ownership group, told us Monday he is "super confident" they'll be on the November ballot. He thinks it's 3-2 on commissioners for vs. against. Thursday will tell.

"It's the anti-Marlins deal for Miami," Mas told us by phone from North Carolina, where he was dropping his son off at Wake Forest. "We'd be paying fair market value for the land, property taxes, and zero taxpayer dollars. No public dollars going into this!"

The politics of the local soccer issue simmer to a boil just as the men's World Cup nears its crescendo in Russia, where France and Belgium play in Tuesday's semifinal and England and Croatia play Wednesday — the winners meeting for the championship on Sunday. It has been a riveting World Cup despite the absence of a U.S. team. Mostly it has been refreshing, the first ever in which the final four did not include giants Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy or Spain.

A triumph by France would be its first since 1998. England last won in 1966. Belgium and Croatia have never won. No matter what, a massive gust of fresh air is blowing through the international sport.

Let the same happen for South Florida. This grandest week for global soccer isn't lacking for drama here. Local TV ratings indicate no U.S. market more than Miami is watching the World Cup, and that built-in passion for futbol is being counted on to make an MLS team thrive here. starting in 2020.

The waiting fan base and a great ownership group headed by Beckham and the Mas family bode very well for MLS Miami.

Need a place to play, though. Sort of important. A jewel of a new stadium as the foundation of the franchise.

Beckham dreamed big. Give him that. He envisioned a postcard stadium, downtown on the waterfront, within view of the Heat arena. Too many obstacles led to a purchase of land in Overtown. But that was an undesired alternative all along, and if you didn't know it, you got a pretty fair clue that day this past January as the Beckham group staged a lavish event the day Miami officially became MLS' 25th franchise.

Speaker after speaker touted MLS in Miami. Not once was the word "Overtown" mentioned.

Melreese Country Club, near Miami International Airport, not quite six miles west of downtown, is a better alternative.

"If it doesn't happen here, it isn't going anywhere else in Miami," Mas told us of the new stadium. (Somewhere outside the city limits, perhaps Doral, would be the next choice).

The Melreese site is not perfect because it would not have the panoramic vista of a waterfront or the majesty of a downtown skyline.

It also is not perfect because the existing Melreese golf complex has been a community fixture since the early 1960s, thanks largely to the great works of the DeLuca family, and plenty of potentially displaced golfers are upset at the idea of being paved over for a soccer complex.

It is close to perfect, though, in the vision of a "world class soccer village and technology hub" outlined Sunday with a teaser video of Miami Freedom Park. The video depicts a 25,000-seat soccer stadium, 23 acres of public youth soccer fields, 750 hotel rooms and 110 acres of permanent open green space. There are assurances of the Beckham group paying fair market value for the land, creating 11,000 jobs over three years, and paying $44 million annually in tax revenue.

The redevelopment of Melreese would be a small sacrifice to the overall public good. It also bears reminding that a golf course is not a public park. It is a place where people pay to play. The soccer-themed park, between the open space and the soccer fields, would be much more of a public park per se than Melreese is.

I'm a golfer, by the way (a bad one), and I can tell you Melreese closing would not be a hardship for most who play there. Courses are everywhere. The Miami Springs course is a mile away, for example.

Mas also emphasizes that Melreese's renowned First Tee program, a national initiative to encourage golf from an early age, would not cease to exist if displaced from Melreese. Other courses would step up to absorb it. As an assurance, the Beckham group should guarantee that First Tee would always have a home as a part of its sprawling acreage.

The whole thing can get rolling, or be stopped in its tracks, with Thursday's commission vote.

And those four words that are all about freedom keeping coming back...

Let the voters decide.

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