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As he tries to bring soccer to PortMiami, David Beckham might have to outmaneuver a line-up of rivals from Miami to Shanghai wanting to build on the waterfront site.
Royal Caribbean Cruises announced this week its opposition to a port soccer stadium, citing traffic concerns and its own confidential plans to develop the 12 acres that Beckham and his investors want to lease.
And just weeks ago, port director Bill Johnson completed a swing through Asia to pitch PortMiami’s in-house plan for the entire 36-acre site, showing business leaders in Singapore, Tokyo and Shanghai renderings for a sprawling commercial complex with hotels, apartments, offices and expo space — but no stadium.
“What we were doing was to literally start to garner interest globally,” in the site, Johnson said. “We were upfront. We said there was a recent interest expressed by David Beckham about a soccer stadium, and that would be addressed in the next six months.”
The growing attention on PortMiami’s southwest corner illustrates the challenge ahead for Beckham as he tries to strike a deal with Miami-Dade County to build a Major League Soccer stadium at the world’s busiest cruising port. Royal Caribbean, whose corporate headquarters overlaps with Beckham’s proposed stadium site, has been privately lobbying to thwart the soccer plan and recently went public with its position.
“We have deep reservations about using this port as a location for a stadium,” said Rob Zeiger, vice president and chief communications officer for Royal, whose existing parking lot, daycare center and employee gym would need to move to make way for a stadium that could contain 25,000 to 40,000 seats. The port’s southwest corner is too shallow to accommodate cruise or cargo ships.
Zeiger refused to elaborate on the company’s objections, though a top Royal executive privately raised traffic concerns in a recent meeting with Rebeca Sosa, the County Commission chairwoman and a leading skeptic of the stadium plan.
Royal’s attempted Beckham block comes as Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is in talks to craft a deal that would bring professional soccer to the county and add entertainment options to a port that sits a short drive from downtown Miami.
“Royal has not articulated to me specific reasons why they may not be in support,” Gimenez said. “I can’t respond to something when I don’t know what the problem is.”
Any opposition is premature, Gimenez said, because Beckham and his investors must first deal with the hurdles placed by the county itself. The mayor said any stadium project would have to include a public space, roads and other amenities. Beckham’s group is also vetting other sites outside the port.
As the only major cruise company with port headquarters, Royal has been a target of commercial brokers who accused PortMiami of striking a below-market deal for one of the area’s largest corporations. Beginning in 2015, Royal will pay $12 per square foot in rent — about 45 percent of market rate at the time the deal was signed in 2011 — for its three buildings, according to a 2011 memo from Gimenez to county commissioners outlining the lease deal.
Royal’s entry into the stadium debate pits the world’s most famous soccer star against the world’s second-largest cruise-ship company. CEO Richard Fain met privately with Gimenez last week to express his concerns, while the company’s head of governmental relations, John Fox, reached out to Sosa. Told Thursday of Gimenez’s request for specific objections from Royal Caribbean, the company issued a terse statement from Zeiger: “I thought we were pretty clear in the meeting.”
Beckham’s team is pitching a stadium as crucial to bringing the exposure and foot traffic PortMiami would need to sustain development. Royal Caribbean told port officials it wants to use the proposed stadium site for some unspecified back-office functions as part of an expanded corporate campus.
Miami’s commercial real-estate industry warns of overbuilding if the county follows the port’s plan to create a new office district with 4.5 million square feet of leasable space, enough to fill the equivalent of about six of downtown’s largest commercial towers. Since 2011, Johnson and his top aides have pitched commercial development as crucial to the port’s financial future.
Last year, World Trade Center Miami, a nonprofit trade group, joined PortMiami in funding a plan by local architect Chad Oppenheim to create a 7-million-square-foot commercial complex centered on the proposed soccer site. The proposed commercial district revolves around a three-tower trade and expo center carrying the name World Trade Center Miami.
“Our interest in this is seeing a World Trade Center building developed as the go-to site for people who want to do trade in this community and in this part of the world, ” said Charlotte Gallogly, the group’s long-time president.
That plan took center stage in a presentation Johnson and Gallogly gave to the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai on Jan. 9. The slide show, which the Shanghai group posted online, described a “commercial development opportunity” that included a 75-year operating agreement for a World Trade Center complex on a site that could accommodate up to 2.5 million square feet of space.
“There was genuine interest among the development community we met with,” Gallogly said of the reaction in Shanghai. “It was a good foray.”
One slide in Shanghai called for a selection process to begin in May, with a developer picked by October. Johnson said the schedule unveiled eight weeks ago no longer makes sense given the soccer talks, which have been under way since November. He and Gimenez said presenting a soccer-free plan for the port in January made sense, given that soccer is just one possibility for the site.
“Soccer does not devour the entire piece of real estate,” Johnson said. “You still might be able to do some other facility and soccer.”
Johnson serves as chairman of World Trade Center Miami, which has become the top recipient of port promotional dollars since Johnson assumed the volunteer leadership post about five years ago.
County records show Johnson’s office approved $1 million in promotional grants to World Trade Center Miami in the past five years, more money than went to any other group, including the county’s tourism bureau. Gallogly said the group did not receive all of the approved dollars, and the county’s online check ledger shows payouts of more than $550,000 in that time frame.
The infusion of county dollars also coincided with Gallogly’s compensation more than doubling. Her total pay went from $165,000 in 2011 to $365,000 in 2012, the most recent year covered by the non-profit’s tax returns. Johnson sits on the compensation committee that approved her pay package, which Gallogly said included a 20 percent salary raise from $165,000 to $200,000, and a one-time bonus based on successful trade shows.
Johnson’s road show pitching the World Trade Center project comes as the outgoing port director has privately expressed interest in landing a second career from the southwest corner once he retires from county government. Johnson faces a mandatory retirement date in June 2015, and the veteran county administrator has told associates he would like to help oversee development of whatever project the port pursues on the site, according to people who have spoken to him.
Johnson enrolled in a statewide retirement program that lets municipal employees stay on their jobs for up to five years while accumulating pension payments. With Johnson’s departure set, Gimenez last year named Johnson deputy Juan Kuryla as the “seaport director designee,” a title that came with a $120,000 raise that put Kuryla’s $290,000 salary about $30,000 ahead of Johnson’s.
Johnson, 59, said he has made no retirement plans after 34 years of working for the county. But while he fields job offers, Johnson said he could picture himself sticking with a project he continues to champion.
“I would be moving into a role serving as a paid CEO of an entity to run the project,” he said. “But there may not be an opportunity. I’d want to work on behalf of my government. … If soccer steps in, they may be the developer.”