Will the $2.67 billion Inter Miami stadium deal wreak havoc at the polls? (includes video story)

Thomas Brewer is a 21-year-old economics student who has played golf since age three. The course, he says, is a place of relaxation and enjoyment, but he was sad to discover recently that Inter Miami would build a soccer stadium and shopping mall on the site of Melreese Golf Course, just southeast of Miami International Airport.

“It’s sad to see the golf courses to be eliminated,”  Brewer said. “They’re like an oasis and they represent the lifestyle of Florida.”

Though the city of Miami recently approved a $2.67 billion deal to build the stadium, voters are still split on whether it will be good for a city that is painfully short on green space. With approvals still pending before the Federal Aviation Administration and an election coming up in the city, the issue could play a role in this fall’s midterm elections.

The plan for the stadium has been brewing for years. Inter Miami originally campaigned for a site by the Biscayne Bay, but that effort failed. The Melreese site was chosen as a compromise and team owners – including Cuban American industrial magnate Jorge Mas and soccer superstar David Beckham – agreed to it if they were also allowed to build a shopping mall and some apartments.

In 2018, city voters approved the idea by 60%, and on April 28 of 2022,  Miami city commissioners approved the project by 4 to 1, with commissioner Reyes being against the plan, as he wanted the city to keep the Melreese course or at least obtain better terms.

Brian Gonzalez, a Miami local and active golfer, says that though the course may be good for the city, it is bad for golfers. “I grew up here, and I have played here since I was a little kid in the 70s, so I saw this golf course transform into what it is now,” he said. “It’s our own local golf course and I am sad to see it go, I am sure they can build a stadium somewhere else, so for golfers, it’s a sad thing.”

Rafael Cordosa, 26, who lives in Miami and is an Inter Miami fan thinks it was a matter of time before Inter Miami built a stadium in their own city.

“The Inter Miami [Stadium] should be in Miami,” he stated. “Before it was at the Lockhart in Ft. Lauderdale, and it had no business doing there because the fans lived in Miami.”

Rodrigo Samaniego, a 21-year-old sports management student at FIU who lives in Boca Raton, has been a soccer fan since a young age and an Inter Miami fan since its creation. He believes that the construction of the park will prove beneficial for the city because of things beyond the sport and the team.

“The majority of the land that is being used for the project is going to be used for public parks, soccer fields, and integrating a previously built water park and baseball field,” he said. “I believe these green spaces will get more use out of them than the old golf course, as well as generate much more opportunity for the community with new jobs, shopping centers, and public parks for the community to engage and recreate.”

Indeed, Miami Freedom Park will offer more than a stadium and a shopping mall. The whole complex is designed to have 7 soccer fields, 4 soccer rinks, 4 baseball fields and a 58-acre public park with bike tracks.

But while the MLS franchise has secured the land for 99 years and fans are motivated, soccer fans must still wait before they can see Inter Miami play at their new home, as the project still needs approval from The Federal Aviation Administration due to it being close to the Miami International Airport. As well, it is necessary for the soccer team to change the zoning category from “Parks and Recreation” to “commercial.”

Although opposition towards the project is mainly from golf fans, the Melreese Golf Course also poses an environmental challenge after it was discovered to have been built on top of soil with elevated levels of arsenic and lead. An environmental analysis done by one of Beckham’s consultants revealed that the contamination is consistent with historic findings of old ash dumps under the course, which led the city of Miami to temporarily close the course in 2019, until the city conducted further analysis on the soil.

The director of the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), Lee Hefty, told the Miami Herald that some parts of the golf course need to be remediated due to high levels of lead and arsenic concentration that exceed regulatory limits.

Inter Miami has offered roughly $120 million to remediate the contaminated land and dig up soil across 131 acres north of Grapeland Heights Park. The expected budget for the cleanup is $36 million, but it is possible for the process to cost more if the contamination reveals bigger issues.

The project expects to receive approval for the remediation from the county’s Department of Environmental and Resource Management (DERM) in about 12 months, which can be an issue due to the county’s stringent requirements.

Upcoming primary elections in Miami-Dade County could also affect plans for the Freedom Park. However, the 99-year lease of the land, and with over 60% of Miami voters being in agreement with the stadium plans, is a favorable factor for candidates who politically align with Mayor Suarez of Miami.

While golfer Thomas Brewer is upset about the removal of the Melreese golf course, he believes the city understands the risks, and he puts golfing matters aside as he sees a more important aspect of the issue.

“It’s not much about the sport with this, it’s more like an environmental question,” he said. “But I trust the city and their studies about the consequences this construction might bring.”

This story is part of a series by the South Florida Media Network on issues significant to voters in this fall’s pivotal mid-term elections. To read the other parts, click here.

Diego is from Caracas, Venezuela and is pursuing his Bachelors' degree for Digital Communications and Media (Digital Journalism) at FIU.

Paloma Pimentel is a Junior at FIU majoring in Journalism. She is passionate about writing and hopes to become an investigative environmental journalist one day. She loves to travel and has been to 18 countries so far.