Tennis center growth tied to local jobs
By Lou Ortiz
Attorney Gene Stearns told county commissioners last week that he had a rare offer for Miami-Dade — a sports franchise looking to do something for the county, versus looking for a handout.
"What is being proposed is quite unusual," he said. "We want to do something for you."
Mr. Stearns represents the organizers of the Sony Open Tennis Tournament, who want to spend $50 million for upgrades at the site of the tourney in Crandon Park.
He said the upgrades would not only benefit the tournament, which pumps $380 million in the local economy, but would also benefit the park and the residents of Miami-Dade the other 11½ months of the year.
The upgrades would include installing permanent bleachers, bathrooms, players' lounge, broadcasting booths, a restaurant, landscaping, shading, and replacing asphalt with stone in the area, among other things.
Organizers are also seeking to extend the tournament's lease of the park area beyond its expiration in 2023.
"It's not $50 million of public money," Mr. Stearns said. "It's a deal that is hard to say no to."
What the organizers are saying, he told commissioners, is "let the people decide" Nov. 6. "If voters say yes," he said, "then the process begins."
There was grumbling among some commissioners before they decided whether to put the issue to voters as a referendum. But tourney organizers have a tough climb, since the county's Home Rule Charter requires more than a simple majority vote before the project begins to go through county scrutiny and approval process.
"The charter requires that such referendum be approved by an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the voters in a countywide referendum," according to the resolution presented to the commission, even though "Sony has offered to construct such improvements funded solely by tennis center and tournament revenues and private funds."
Commissioner Dennis Moss said there's more at stake for the county and his District 9 than just the tournament.
"My people aren't worried about tournaments, but jobs," Mr. Moss said. "People are concerned about jobs in this community. I want to make sure that people from my district have an opportunity to participate."
"At this point, I support the project," he told Mr. Stearns. "[But] I am looking for a diversity plan when this [project] comes back. I am not going to support projects if certain segments of this community are not getting the jobs."
"They're talking about jobs and opportunities," Mr. Moss said, "and that does not exist in many of the communities I represent."
The tournament's "economic benefits is jobs," Mr. Stearns told commissioners. "Jobs, jobs, jobs is what this is all about."
But Commissioner Javier Souto asked if there were "strings attached" to the spending of private funds.
"It all looks very pretty," Mr. Souto said. "Once the ball gets rolling, things get out of control. I want to make sure that this board has control."
The commission needs to make sure that it will make the ultimate decision on the project, he said. "We represent the people of Miami-Dade County. I just want to make sure this board retains total control."
Mr. Souto pointed to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the new Marlins stadium as projects that now rest on the financial shoulders of residents. "At the end of the day, it's the people who pay," he said.
The commission voted 13-0 to put the referendum question on the Crandon Park upgrades before voters Nov. 6. But that will be one of many steps if voters approve.
"The decision to go forward [with the project] will ultimately be decided by this board," Assistant County Attorney R.A. Cuevas Jr., told commissioners. "This is one step of many that have to be accomplished. "You'll ultimately decide, yea or nay."
Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz said the commission is always striving for economic development and jobs. "Here we have a golden opportunity to do so," he said. The Sony Open "puts us on the map worldwide. It increases opportunities for other sporting events."
Mr. Stearns said many cities around the world would like to have the tournament and that the Sony Open is to Miami-Dade what Wimbledon is to England. The use of private funds "is the non-negotiable part of this deal," he said. "We're not competing with any other sports entities."
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