David Beckham’s Florida soccer club has been accused of reneging on a promise to build community sports facilities and a recreational park on public land around its $160m stadium in Fort Lauderdale.
A 2019 deal between the city and Miami Beckham United, the owners of the former England captain’s Major Soccer League team Inter Miami CF, required the club to construct the facilities “in the most expeditious manner” alongside the stadium in return for a 50-year rent-free lease.
Running and walking trails, a public park and playground, a dog park and sports fields for public use were expected to be open by next summer.
But Heather Moraitis, the vice mayor of Fort Lauderdale, says Beckham’s team played foul by building its 18,000-capacity state-of-the-art stadium, which opened more than a year ago, then stiffed the city on the community park.
To add insult to injury, Moraitis told the Guardian, the club currently uses the city’s land earmarked for the park as an overflow parking area and has it fenced off, so the taxpayers who own it cannot gain access.
“It seems like an empty promise. I understand everyone has a bottom line and they want to make money, but you can’t do it on the backs of the people,” she said.
“I’m not even sure David Beckham knows what’s going on. I’d explain to him why my city and my people feel let down and I don’t think he’d support turning his back on a whole community. He’s a dream maker, not a dream killer.”
Beckham snapped up the cut-price $25m MLS franchise in 2014, which was offered to him as an incentive to join Los Angeles Galaxy at the end of his playing career.
The once derelict Fort Lauderdale site is officially the club’s training facility but became its de facto base last year when Beckham’s protracted search for a permanent home in Miami hit roadblocks.
The club kicked off its first MLS season in 2020 at the so-called DRV PNK stadium, playing behind closed doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Attendances this year have been healthy, despite Inter Miami’s lowly eastern conference position, and set a club record of 17,926 in the local derby with Orlando City in June. The new ground sits on the site of the old Lockhart Stadium, which was left in disrepair after its last tenant, the financially troubled Fort Lauderdale Strikers, was wound up in 2017.
The club’s agreement with the city states that Beckham and Inter Miami’s co-owners – Bolivian technology tycoon Marcelo Claure, Cuban-American entrepreneurs Jorge and Jose Mas, and the Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son – would manage and pay for all construction.
“It was a win-win for both of us. The community was still getting a beautiful 20-acre community park with fields and playgrounds and trails. They even hired a local landscaping architect who worked on their whole facility,” said Moraitis, who in 2019 called it “a once in a lifetime project for South Florida and our community”.
But, she said, the club stalled for almost two years, then came back asking for more land and dangling the prospect of a women’s national league team playing under the Inter Miami banner as a carrot.
She said that Miami Beckham United representatives wanted some of the 20-acre community site to host the women’s team, then suggested the city assume responsibility for building the park on the rest, which the soccer club would pay for.
“For six months they would never give us a number. I asked Inter Miami to move forward and they said they don’t want to build it, they want us to do it,” Moraitis said.
“But we all know if the city does it, it’ll take twice as long and cost twice as much.”
Miami Beckham United’s legal representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Guardian. An email sent to Inter Miami’s media relations department, using an official address from the club’s website, was returned undelivered.
Stephanie Toothaker, a land use development strategist and attorney who represented Miami Beckham United in negotiations with the city, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that Beckham and his partners “are not ducking any promises made”.
She told the newspaper that the group had been prepared to build the park at the same time as the stadium but claimed it needed more time to get “a wish list” from residents. She also blamed the pandemic for delays. “Nobody saw that coming. Everything got put on hold,” she said.
Moraitis said she expects Miami Beckham United to seek a formal amendment to the 2019 agreement to allow it to expand into the park area for the proposed women’s team, something that the Sun-Sentinel said her fellow commissioners appear amenable to.
“Circumstances have changed. Now we can go big and create a sports destination. This is an industrial area next to an airport. This is not an area that screams out neighborhood park,” commissioner Steven Glassman told the newspaper.