Just hours after MLS named Sacramento as the league's latest expansion team, MLS commissioner Don Garber expressed frustration over the latest political maneuverings in Miami as it relates to Inter Miami's stadium proposal, dubbed Miami Freedom Park.
A meeting of the Miami city commission is scheduled for Thursday, and there are two resolutions on the agenda related to the project, whose plans include a 25,000-seat venue as part of a $1 billion development of Melreese Country Club. The first is a yes/no vote on the current version of the lease. The second would instruct the city manager to cease negotiations on a lease with Miami Freedom Park LLC -- the business entity attempting to develop the land on Inter Miami's behalf -- and open up development of the site to competitive bidding.
There is a chance that neither resolution is voted on at Thursday's meeting. But if the first resolution passes, there is nothing to stop Inter Miami from submitting a revised lease at a later date. But if the latter resolution is approved, it would at minimum cause considerable delay to the Miami Freedom Park project, and could end up killing the deal.
The political machinations have been noticed by MLS, which back in 2014 first announced its intention to place a team in Miami with an ownership group led by David Beckham. The process has seen proposed stadium sites as well as potential investors come and go. In the meantime, Inter Miami is expected to play at least its first two seasons at a temporary facility in Ft. Lauderdale.
"There have been continuous challenges in Miami, and it's frustrating," said Garber in an exclusive interview. "MLS has shown such a commitment to the City of Miami, and been so patient for so many years. We've done everything we said we would do. We found an unbelievable local owner in Jorge Mas and his partner Marcelo Claure. They've invested over $100 million in a temporary facility, all based on the fact that there was public referendum that supported our path to signing a lease at the Melreese site.
"Now all of a sudden, there's a bunch of folks that are backtracking on some of the commitments that were made. I find it frustrating and at times infuriating. It seems as if we're getting caught up in a political mess that is not of our making. I'm very disappointed."
Last November, voters approved a referendum by a 20-point margin that authorized the city commission to negotiate a 99-year lease for the project. That was by no means the end to the political obstacles. Since the project is a no-bid deal, four of the five city commissioners have to approve the lease. Commissioners Manolo Reyes and Willy Gort have long voiced opposition to the project. Reyes has sponsored both of the resolutions related to the Melreese proposal.
"I understand Mr. Garber's frustration but his job is to promote MLS, and for Mr. Mas and his partners this is a business decision," Commissioner Reyes said via email. "My job is to protect the interest of the residents and our greenspaces/parks of the City of Miami.
"I am not sure who Mr. Garber is referring too with his statement of 'all of a sudden, there's a bunch of folks that are backtracking' because I have been against this real estate development/land grab by group of businessmen. I have nothing against soccer. If Mr. Mas and his business partners want to buy land within the city of Miami and develop it I am sure the City would assist in any way possible."
Both sides have accused the other of dragging their feet in terms of getting a lease in front of the city commission. With Gort set to leave office due to term limits, it's been alleged that Inter Miami is merely waiting for a more favorable composition of the city commission before finalizing the lease. The stadium's proponents have countered that it wasn't their fault that commissioners took so long to hire outside consultants to help negotiate the deal.
"Some commissioners continue to try and substitute their judgment for the will of the voters," Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said in a statement to ESPN. "It's anti-democratic, frustrating, and a blatant betrayal of the public trust. We have to stop playing games and exercise the will of the voters to bring this global sport, one of the few things missing in Miami, to our beautiful global city."
In response, Reyes said, "The Mayor and I have a very different interpretation of what the voters supported, or what they were [led] to believe during that referendum. I have been clear on my position from day one. This should have and must follow the process put forth in our City Charter and we must have full transparency. But most of all we must stand up to land grabs and protect our greenspaces/parks."
With regard to the resolution to approve the lease, Mas told ESPN, "There's no agreement to vote on,' pointing out that such key items as determining the fair market value (FMV) of the land, as well the cost of remediation to remove toxic materials from the site has yet to be determined, and are thus not yet specified in the lease.
"Nobody is in more of a hurry here than I am to get something done and present it to the city," said Mas, who added that he'll make a presentation at Thursday's meeting. "They took a little bit of time in hiring the appraiser, the outside consultant, only a couple of months ago. We're hoping that in the next 30-45 days they can get most of their work done."
One area of concern for the project's backers is that commissioner Joe Carollo, thought to be in favor of Miami Freedom Park, is the co-sponsor of the resolution requesting that the Melreese by opened up to competitive bidding. Whether that points to actual opposition, or other internal political maneuvering remains to be seen, but Mas remains optimistic.
"Commissioner Carollo has been on the record wanting to develop Miami Freedom Park, so I feel confident that Commissioner Carollo also wants to see a fully filled agreement before him so he can vote on it," Mas said.