Friday, November 17, 2017

David Beckham bends ears of Florida lawmakers


TALLAHASSEE — David Beckham hasn't given up on the idea of state subsidies for his proposed soccer stadium.

To prove it, the world's biggest soccer star traveled to Tallahassee on Tuesday to meet with Gov. Rick Scott, along with House and Senate leaders.

Wherever Beckham went, female legislative aides and lobbyists followed.

Even lawmakers — both male and female — took a break from crafting legislation to catch a glimpse of Beckham's famous face. By late afternoon, Scott, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, House Speaker Will Weatherford, Sen. Anitere Flores, Rep. Dana Young and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz had all Tweeted selfies with Beckham.

Beckham characterized the day's meetings as "very positive."

He said lawmakers hadn't made him any promises. "I know that it's going to be fair and I know that their decision will be what's best for the state," he said.

Beckham recently unveiled his plan for a new open-air soccer stadium in the heart of PortMiami. His proposal includes a pedestrian bridge to the island bridge, and a one-million square-foot commercial complex on the site.

Beckham says the plan has the power to transform downtown Miami. And for that, he is seeking some help from the state.

He and his team of lobbyists are supporting a legislative proposal (SB 1216/HB 7095) that would enable professional sports franchises to compete for sales tax rebates for construction and renovation projects.

Each team would have to apply. The Department of Economic Opportunity would rank the proposals, but the Legislature would ultimately choose the winners.

The Senate version, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, of Clearwater, caps the subsides at $3 million per team based on the sales tax generated at the facility. As much as $13 million could be awarded in any 12-month period.

The House version gives lawmakers the authority to dole out a maximum of $12 million in annual subsidies. Each project would be limited to $2 million.

A key provision for Beckham allows Major League Soccer franchises to be in contention for the money.

The state's current incentive program, which benefits eight professional teams, does not include soccer franchises.

Beckham said he is not asking for any special handouts. "We just want the support that every other franchise, ever other sports team has," he said.

Earlier this week, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, tried to amend the bill so it would cover North American Soccer League franchises like the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale Strikers. But he failed to find support on the Senate Commerce and Tourism panel. The MLS and NASL are both professional soccer leagues.

The broader proposal has widespread support in the Senate and the blessing of Weatherford in the House.

Weatherford, citing last year's failed effort to provide taxpayer support for a $350 million upgrade of Sun Life Stadium, does not want to vote on individual facilities projects this year. Instead, he supports the creation of a process for awarding future funding.

But some key differences remain between the House and Senate plans. And not everyone supports the concept, including some members of the Miami-Dade delegation.

"It's poor public policy," said state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. "There's no economic development study that shows that giving taxpayer dollars to for-profit industries is good for the community."

Trujillo added: "I encourage them in their pursuit to bring a MLS team to Miami-Dade County, but I hope they use their own money just like any other business would."

Before Tuesday, Beckham had never been to Tallahassee.

He had a pleasant trip, he said, and was particularly struck by the moss in the trees.

"I've only seen it in scary movies," he said. "I took a lot of selfies myself to send to the kids."

It certainly won't be his last visit, he said.

"I'm in it for the long haul," Beckham said. "I know we are going to make Miami proud to have a stadium."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]

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