21 Aug Broken promise? Beckham soccer stadium deal called for a park. It’s still waiting to be built. | Sports
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — David Beckham and company came to town two years ago with a field of dreams kind of promise.
Part of that promise now stands tall and proud on 40 acres of taxpayer-owned land: the $160 million DRV PNK Stadium.
But the city’s landowners — Fort Lauderdale taxpayers — are still waiting on Miami Beckham United to make good on its other promise: to build a park and community sports fields on more than 20 acres south of the stadium.
The deal, sealed with a commission vote in 2019, says the park needs to be built by July 2022. Work has not even begun. On game day, the entire span of the grassy parcel is being used as an overflow parking lot.
Stephanie Toothaker, a lawyer and lobbyist for Beckham United, said the soccer star and his partners are not ducking any promises made.
But Vice Mayor Heather Moraitis, whose district includes the stadium, fears what she once thought of as a sweetheart deal might turn into one of the worst failures of her political career.
Moraitis said she supported the deal in 2019 because she wanted what she calls a destination park in an area of the city that desperately needs one. Now she accuses Beckham United officials of promising a park they really needed for parking and never intended to build.
During the commission’s summer break, Moraitis said, Beckham United presented a surprise proposal that would siphon more land away from the park.
Toothaker said Inter Miami officials are in talks to bring a national women’s soccer league to Fort Lauderdale, describing the development as a gift that fell out of the sky. The team would play under the Inter Miami name and share the 18,000-seat stadium with the men’s team.
With no space left on the 40 acres, the new training facility and practice field would have to be built on a portion of the 20 acres to the south reserved for the public park, Toothaker said.
Use what you got
Moraitis is dead set against the plan, which she calls yet another land giveaway.
“Inter Miami got 40 acres, and I think it needs to stop there,” she said. “There is no way I am giving them 1 inch of land.”
But Moraitis can’t stop it on her own. Beckham United can move forward with a yes vote from at least three commissioners. And they may have it.
At least three members of the commission — Mayor Dean Trantalis and Commissioners Steve Glassman and Robert McKinzie — seem open to the idea.
“Circumstances have changed,” Glassman said. “Now we can go big and create a sports destination. This is an industrial area next to an airport. This is not an area that screams out neighborhood park. And you can quote me on that.”
Initially, the team didn’t plan to play their home games in Fort Lauderdale beyond 2021.
The plan was to play just two seasons in Fort Lauderdale then move to a new 25,000-seat stadium Beckham United planned to build in Miami.
But the pandemic and politics have gotten in the way.
With Miami officials yet to sign off on a deal, the team is expected to remain in Fort Lauderdale for a while.
“I think they’re here at least through 2024,” Glassman said. “Even if the men’s team leaves after 2024, I believe the national women’s soccer league and team would be here to stay.”
Beckham and Jorge Mas, managing owner of Inter Miami, made their initial pitch to Fort Lauderdale officials more than two years ago, quickly winning over city leaders with a vision to turn the old Lockhart Stadium site in northern Fort Lauderdale into a sports destination.
The deal gave Beckham’s Major League Soccer team Inter Miami CF the right to use the stadium for 50 years without paying rent. In return, the city would own the stadium and also get a new Lockhart Park with a playground, dog park, fitness area, multipurpose playfield, kickball zone, yoga lawn, walking trail and sprawling open green space.
In the middle of the park would sit a two-story community center and nearby splash pad to be built by the city with up to $25 million from a voter-approved parks bond.
Mary Peloquin, a resident of Coral Ridge and member of the city’s parks advisory board, wants to see the park built as planned.
“I don’t think we should be giving more land away,” she said. “I feel a little bait and switch here. I find it sad that the land we have left might be given away to developers. I don’t know if its normal or not, but I don’t think it’s right.”
‘Sweet deal’ turns sour?
In hindsight, Moraitis says she regrets not working out a better deal for the city.
“They pay us zero rent,” she said. “We get zero property tax revenue. We get zero revenue from ticket sales. If this commission wants to give them an additional 20 acres, I hope they negotiate a better financial split if they want to give our 20 acres away.”
Trantalis argues that the city ended up with a world-class stadium.
“We didn’t give them anything,” he said. “We own the stadium. They have a license to use the stadium for 50 years. They made a $160 million investment in the city. And we own the whole thing. I think that’s a pretty sweet deal for the city.”
At the community’s request, Beckham United built a high school football stadium on the northern end of the 40-acre parcel.
Glassman argued that the deal was a tradeoff, with the city gaining more than it lost.
“Remember we were looking at an area that was desolate,” he said. “It was nothing more than decaying buildings and weeds. And what did our taxpayers pay to have the stadium built? Zero.”
No one — city officials included — can say for sure what it would cost to build the park as originally planned.
In July, Moraitis said she wanted to see park construction get underway by the end of the soccer season in October.
Toothaker suggested the city build the park at Beckham United’s expense.
Moraitis bristled at the suggestion.
“For us to do it, it’ll cost twice as much and take twice as long,” she said.
Glassman blames the city for not being on the ball with its park design.
“Here’s the deal: There was a whole set of circumstances that happened when they built the stadium,” he said. “All the construction teams were there. They were ready to go. The time to finish the site was then. You can’t expect them to mobilize again.”
Toothaker said Beckham United was prepared to build the park in tandem with the stadium. But city officials said they needed more time to get a wish list from residents before moving forward.
Then the pandemic hit in March 2020, causing further delays.
“Nobody saw that coming,” Toothaker said. “Everything got put on hold.”
The team had planned to host its opening game on March 14, 2020, but play was suspended two days before that to help contain the spread of the virus.
Play resumed in August 2020, with fans watching on TV. This season, Toothaker says fans are watching from packed stands, sitting in seats imported from Paris.
Toothaker insists there would still be space for a dog park, playground and walking trails should the women’s soccer facilities be built on the parcel to the south.
Room for both?
Moraitis wants team officials to make space on the 40 acres they already operate and control.
“They should build a parking garage on their side with the women’s training facility on the top of the garage,” she said. “The women can use their fields to practice.”
Their side is already off limits to residents who want to kick a ball or just walk on the field, Moraitis noted. That would also be the case for any acreage reserved for the women’s soccer league.
The vice mayor sounded the alarm in an email blast to residents: “The public will have no access to this land and we will receive no revenue from this land — your land.”
Caleb Gunter, who also serves on Fort Lauderdale’s parks advisory board, was disturbed by the news.
“We have very limited park space in a very urban area,” said Gunter, a father of two. “If we’re giving up more acreage, we’re going backwards not forwards. And when we start taking away limited park space for special uses, the residents will have nothing left.”
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