Greg Cote

Rightfully, the voters will have a say on Beckham group’s plan for MLS soccer stadium

Jorge Mas listens during a special meeting at Miami City Hall to follow up on the Beckham-Melreese stadium proposal on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.
Jorge Mas listens during a special meeting at Miami City Hall to follow up on the Beckham-Melreese stadium proposal on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. adiaz@miamiherald.com

It took 4 years, 5 months and 13 days. To David Beckham it must have seemed an eternity. Through the labyrinth that is Miami politics, that’s close to lightning speed.

A February morning in 2014 introduced Beckham, international soccer star, as the face of efforts to bring a Major League Soccer expansion franchise to Miami. Wednesday came the long-awaited watershed advance toward making that finally happen.

“The most important step yet to bring our vision to a reality,” Jorge Mas called it — Mas, the deep-pocketed owner with strong Miami roots that the Beckham group had lacked before he came aboard to save the dream.

The Miami City Commission voted 3-2 Wednesday in a special meeting at city hall to allow the Miami Freedom Park soccer initiative onto the November ballot in a referendum for voters. Such a perfect soccer score, 3-2. The commission had failed to agree and tabled the vote last week, but on Wednesday, after grilling Mas and his attorney at length on specifics of the plan and his concerns, swing vote commissioner Ken Russell joined the yays.

Beckham wasn’t there for the vote.

“But he’s been on the phone every five minutes looking for updates,” said Mas with a smile.

MLS had previously approved Miami as an expansion team set to begin play in March of 2020, but until Wednesday’s vote it was a team without a home. No place to play. Team Beckham had roamed around town like an orphan after failing to secure a preferred waterfront stadium at two different downtown locations. A plan to build near Marlins Park didn’t work out. An Overtown site was rejected.

Now, finally, there is a place and a plan: Miami Freedom Park and Soccer Village, a near-$1 billion project to be built (if approved by voters) at the current Melreese Country Club site just east of the airport, some six miles west of downtown. A 25,000-seat soccer stadium would be augmented by 58 acres of green space, 23 acres of soccer fields, a hotel and retail shops.

Had this measure failed to get on the November ballot, the Beckham group might have turned to Doral, except MLS wanted the stadium in the city of Miami proper. The whole idea of top-level soccer here might have collapsed if commissioner Russell hadn’t turned agreeable on Wednesday.

It still could collapse. This is Miami, remember.

“There’s so many places this could die along the way,” as Russell put it before revealing his support, “but for this moment, I’m OK to see this move forward to the voters.”

Public support in November is anticipated.

“My confidence is extremely high,” said Mayor Francis Suarez, a huge proponent.

Mas said the same. Based on his group’s internal polling, “We’re at 70 percent,” he said.

Voter support won’t be the final hurdle. The commission voted only to allow the issue onto the ballot, not to green-light it. The referendum will ask voters if the city should then negotiate a no-bid lease with the Beckham group — all before the ceremonial golden shovel can ever go into the ground to begin construction.

The lack of vetting or complete details and analysis prior to Wednesday’s vote is why one commissioner, Manolo Reyes, voted no. The other no vote was by Willy Gort, whose district includes Melreese golf. The yes votes besides Russell were by Keon Hardemon and Joe Corollo, who effectively attacked the credibility of Melreese and the people running it.

But Carollo admitted his vote could change when it comes to the city approving the final deal should voters do so, saying the city would want “a lot more” on lease arrangements.

“This doesn’t mean you’re going to have my vote the second time around,” Corollo told Mas.

The city’s cautiousness on the soccer deal has a face to it, and a soundtrack.

The face is that of a grinning Jeffrey Loria — the gift that keeps on taking. The soundtrack is The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The city and county were so burned by the Marlins Park deal that egregiously favored Loria that there will be exaggerated due diligence on this. That’s even as Mas keeps repeating that no taxpayer dollars will be involved.

That means everybody (well, except Melreese golfers) won on Wednesday.

Beckham, Mas and MLS won. Soccer fans won. And the Loria Lesson and its effect going forward means the people won, too — the voters who will have their say, and who’ll then be assured of a fair deal by politicians who won’t get fooled again .

That means, most of all, Miami won.

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