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Mayor: Toxic site won't derail Beckham MLS plan

Despite MLS finally awarding a franchise to Miami, ESPN FC's Alejandro Moreno says details are still lacking about David Beckham's club.
David Beckham takes time for ESPN FC's Alexis Nunes to announce his plans for an MLS franchise in Miami.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said that the finding of high levels of toxic materials on the proposed site for Inter Miami's soccer stadium is "not anything that jeopardizes the deal in any way."

Inter Miami, which counts David Beckham among its ownership group, is currently in the process of negotiating a 99-year lease with the city for a $1 billion development project -- dubbed Miami Freedom Park -- that will include a 25,000-seat stadium. The project is set to be built on what is currently the home of Melreese Country Club, Miami's only city-owned golf course.

On Monday, an environmental analysis of the site -- paid for by Inter Miami -- was made public, and it revealed levels of arsenic, barium and lead that exceeded legal limits. This was due to debris from an old municipal incinerator that was closed decades ago. Inter Miami has long known about the environmental concerns related to the site, and pledged to pay the total cost of any remediation that is needed.

On Tuesday, The Miami Herald reported that Miami city manager Emilio Gonzalez had ordered the closure of the golf course pending an analysis of the report's findings.

"It's more for the health and safety of the people that are using the site at the moment," Suarez told ESPN about the closure of the golf course. "There wasn't as much concern about the deal itself. There was always an understanding that the team was going to remediate [the site]. They understood that it was contaminated. It's not anything that jeopardizes the deal in any way."

Mayor Suarez, a proponent of the project, confirmed that the new analysis means that the cost of remediation, initially estimated at $35 million, is now around $50 million, but he remains unconcerned that this will adversely affect Inter Miami's plans.

"From my perspective, it doesn't really matter because [Inter Miami has] agreed to pay it, and capitalize it," he said. "This is a $1 billion deal; $35 million, $50 million, that's 3.5 percent or 5% of the deal. I'm not saying that's insignificant, but they have a range, and they are comfortable that it's within the range."

David Beckham and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez shake hands in January 2018 during the announcement of MLS's expansion to the city.

The initial terms of the deal with Inter Miami -- the broad framework of which was approved by voters last November -- state that the team will make annual lease payments based either on the site's fair market value or 5% of the gross revenues minus the amount of "common area maintenance," whichever figure is higher. Two previous appraisals pegged Inter Miami's annual payments at $3.6 million per year, making that the minimum payment in any lease. Two additional appraisals are being done to reassess the site's fair market value. If the figure is higher, that is what will be used in the lease agreement.

Commissioner Manolo Reyes, a staunch critic of the deal, questioned whether the closure of the golf course was necessary, and whether it was being used as leverage in the lease negotiations that could see the city leave money on the table.

"What I want to know is if it is something that's been done as a tactic to devalue the land," Reyes told the Herald. "Then they can claim they will have to pay less."

Reyes did not immediately respond to request by ESPN for comment.

Suarez countered that the appraisals made before Monday's announcement give the city protection on the downside. He also continued to tout the project's benefits, including the construction of a hotel, office space, a 58-acre park and soccer fields.

"We did this as a zero-subsidy deal. We're going to be making $5 billion in revenues," he said. "If you can find a deal that's better than that, please let me know."

Suarez also said he was unconcerned about a City Commission resolution that required lease negotiations to be completed by Sept. 12.

"We're just continuing work," he said. "If we can make that deadline, wonderful. If we can't, then we'll go back to the commission and say, 'We need more time.'"

Once the lease negotiations are completed, four of the five Miami city commissioners must approve the deal for it to go into effect. With Commissioner Reyes set to vote "no," Commissioner Willy Gort, in whose district the site lies, is considered to be the swing vote.

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