Youth baseball academy pitched in stadium deal sits on bench
By Jacquelyn Weiner
As the rising Marlins stadium moves toward a spring 2012 opening, a Major League Baseball youth academy pitched as a local benefit of the heavily tax-funded ballpark is far behind schedule.
And at this rate, the stadium may be open and operational well before the academy.
Major League Baseball in January 2009 announced plans to open an Urban Youth Baseball Academy in Hialeah and has promised $3 million toward its construction.
But many months later, the project has yet to break ground or receive a thumbs-up from the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management.
"We have not received an application for construction of the Youth Baseball Academy at this site," Luis Espinoza, communications program manager for the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management, wrote in a May e-mail. "There are some environmental concerns that need to be addressed at this location, and we look forward to working closely with the City of Hialeah on their plans for this site as soon as we receive their application."
A January 2009 Major League Baseball press release announcing the academy said it was "scheduled to break ground on the Hialeah facility later this year."
While acknowledging that progress has been slow, Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina said the property's environmental issues are out of the ordinary.
The baseball facility's site is part of a 500-acre parcel owned by developer Flagler that was previously a construction- and demolition-debris landfill.
"This property is not your run-of-the-mill stormwater or drainage [approval] process," said Rafael Rodon, Flagler's executive vice president. "Flagler, along with our consultants, has been for months meeting with DERM [the Department of Environmental Resources Management] and going through the process."
Mr. Rodon said work continues on the "complicated process" of entitling the property, gathering drainage calculations and going through Development of Regional Impact approval.
In addition, approvals must include the reverse-osmosis water plant planned on the 500-acre property.
Essentially, the whole parcel and all its components must be approved before any piece can move forward.
That includes Flagler handing ownership of the approximately 60-acre parcel for the Urban Youth Baseball Academy over to the City of Hialeah, Mr. Rodon said.
"It's a long and complicated process," he said. "This little piece is just part of it."
Mayor Robaina had similar words:
"It is a process," he said. We "want to make sure [the property is] clean and safe before it's transferred to us."
When asked why he told Miami Today in December that the project was set to break ground as soon as the project had final approval from the Department of Environmental Resources Management, yet as of May the department said no request had been filed, Mr. Robaina said he is "just going by based on what I'm told."
"I'm like a buyer that's waiting for the seller to do all of the things they need to do."
Major League Baseball is "anxious also" for the project to get underway, he said.
"They're waiting for me," Mr. Robaina said. "It's like a domino effect."
"Everybody's waiting on everybody else."
A representative of Major League Baseball did not facilitate multiple interview requests.
The Major League Baseball press release from January 2009 said the baseball academy was "scheduled to break ground on the Hialeah facility later this year."
Talk of the youth facility began in 2007 after Major League Baseball passed up the lakeside parcel at Northwest 97th Avenue and northwest 154th Street that Hialeah had pitched as a site for the new Marlins stadium, opting instead to use the site for a South Florida addition to its youth baseball academies.
Seen by some as a consolation prize, Mayor Robaina has said he views the academy as a service from Major League Baseball to a community that welcomed the idea of a stadium to the area.
"I think that they noticed the enthusiasm of this community for baseball," Mr. Robaina has said.
When complete, the academy is to offer free sports and education programs to area youth ages 7 to 18. It's to include a show field with a scoreboard, dugouts and lights, seating for 700 fans and space an additional 1,800 and four softball/Little League fields, among other features, according to the Major League Baseball release.
Staff is to include former minor and major league players.
The Hialeah youth facility was to be the second Urban Youth Baseball Academy, following the opening of the first in Compton, CA, in 2006.
The Hialeah project was announced by Major League Baseball on Jan. 7, 2009, followed by plans to build a third academy in Houston on Jan 23, 2009, according to Major League Baseball's website.
But the latest press release on the Youth Baseball Academy section of the site touts the grand opening of the Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy April 10, knocking Hialeah's earlier-announced facility back to at least No. 3.