Scores of supporters of First Tee Miami packed the Miami City Hall chambers Thursday morning, decked out in orange shirts and prepared to voice their opposition to a possible referendum on a soccer stadium at Melreese Country Club, where the youth golf program is housed.
Outside at nearby Regatta Park, organizers and friends of Fútbol Miami MLS, a group led by MasTec executive Jorge Mas and soccer star David Beckham that has pushed for years to bring a Major League Soccer club to Miami, erected inflatable bouncy castles and prepared a stage where Beckham was expected to speak sometime after 12:30 p.m.
The public hearing was set to begin at 2 p.m., including a presentation from Fútbol Miami brass, a public comment period and, ultimately, a potential vote by the City Commission on whether to ask voters to amend the city charter to pave the way for a soccer stadium, retail and more at Melreese.
Public comment about the proposal was not allowed during the morning session. But the fanfare started long before that. Some First Tee supporters told the Miami Herald they arrived as early as 5:15 a.m. and said they expected close to 200 people to show up to oppose the proposal.
Tanya Eathakotti, an 18-year-old graduate of the First Tee program who now works as an instructor at Melreese, said she feels like First Tee is a second home, where she learned more than just how to play golf. She pointed to the program’s “core values,” saying she wouldn’t be an outgoing leader of other youths if it weren’t for First Tee.
Jorge Mas has said he’s committed to keeping First Tee on the Melreese site, but it would be housed at a golf entertainment facility such as Top Golf.
Eathakotti isn’t convinced. She thinks the ambiance, space and staff of Melreese are important to First Tee’s success.
“Being at Melreese is something different than being at a golf entertainment center,” she said.
Ralphy Sans, 13, was sitting in the front row of the commission chambers with his parents before the meeting began. Sans said First Tee provides necessary academic tutoring, scholarships and personal guidance.
“It’s not all golf,” he said.
A group from The First Tee Miami is beginning to trickle in. They’ve been waiting outside since 5:15 a.m. and said close to 200 people will be coming to the meeting opposing the Beckham/MLS soccer stadium proposal pic.twitter.com/bJDgqsXh5H
— Jordan McPherson (@J_McPherson1126) July 12, 2018
After the morning session concluded, with discussion on unrelated items including historic preservation in Coconut Grove, a pack of Fútbol Miami supporters ventured from City Hall over to Regatta Park for a pre-meeting barbecue.
Daniel Prenat, a Miami resident and director of operations for Soccer Marketing and Promotions, which organizes soccer events in South Florida, said he believed the Melreese plan would be great for the city.
“It’s not just a soccer stadium,” Prenat said. “It’s commercial retail space, and I heard that it was going to be a hotel and a public park.”
Prenat added that the Mas group has said the project would be privately funded, unlike the Marlins Park deal a decade ago. Plus, Prenat said, the proposal would add soccer fields at Melreese that the city’s youth soccer leagues sorely need.
“We have one complex with five fields in Kendall, and one complex with six fields in Hialeah, and that’s it,” he said. “We don’t have any complexes that are bigger, and that really limits youth soccer in the area.”
Tyrone Sandaal, whose 13-year-old daughter plays for a travel soccer team in Coral Gables, echoed Prenat’s view that Miami could use more fields. But he said he was on the fence about the proposal, noting a lack of transparency in the process and a fear that taxpayers could still foot the bill.
“Like everybody else in Miami, we’re still kind of freaked out by the Marlins deal,” Sandaal said. “It seems like a lot of it’s happening behind closed doors. I get the feeling that some of it is almost like a foregone conclusion.”