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Sam Burley sweeps his arm over an undulating grass field adjacent to Southridge Senior High School, where Burley is the head track coach. He's pointing to the area where the school board has long promised to build a running track for his athletes. The board won't build the track, though, until Miami-Dade County follows through on its plans to build a football stadium on the site. Unfortunately for Burley and his squad of harriers, the county has been promising to build that stadium for nearly 30 years. And despite two multimillion-dollar bond issues passed by county voters to erect the facility, and despite continued lip service from county bureaucrats that, yes, the stadium is about to be built, Burley doubts he'll ever see it.
“I really don't think they want it built,” he grumbles. “I don't know why, but I don't believe they want to see it.”
In the racially mixed community surrounding the school, the missing stadium has become a symbol of the county's general neglect. South Miami Heights, an unincorporated South Miami-Dade community located between Goulds and the Metrozoo, is still struggling to rebuild after Hurricane Andrew while battling a poverty rate 25 percent higher than the state average. The county, community leaders argue, has been of little help in the struggle.
“South Miami Heights has long been ignored and cheated,” declares Larry Jones, president of the South Miami Heights Community Development Agency. “[Our population is greater] than the population of Richmond Heights, West Perrine, Goulds, Naranja, and Florida City. This community sends Miami-Dade County more than ten million dollars a year just in property taxes. Yet there is no public pool here. And instead of the park we desperately need as a place for our kids to play, there is a pile of rocks. This really isn't fair to the community.”
The county first drew up plans for an athletic facility in 1972. Southridge High was due to open in a few years and, as part of a voter-endorsed countywide push for parkland, the large plot next to the planned school was earmarked for a complex of tennis courts and a lighted stadium ringed by bleachers.
Southridge opened in 1977, but the county's plans for the sports complex stalled, not to be revived until after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. In the aftermath of the storm, county voters passed another bond issue, setting aside a million dollars for a park and another million for a 3000-seat football and soccer stadium. The county commissioned architects. A time line was established. The athletic facility would be finished no later than 1997.
Yet three years after that deadline passed there is still nothing but a barren field. The county has made some progress on the site, laying grass over the rocks, craters, and anthills that so severely pockmarked the parcel the school couldn't even use the field for band practice. The county commissioned additional architects. More plans have been rendered. A new time line indicates there will be a stadium by July 2001. Promise.
“Like I believe that,” sniffs Bob Burnside, Southridge's long-time athletic director. Not only does he dismiss the new construction schedule, he also points out that the new stadium as proposed is a mere shadow of the facility approved after the hurricane. Now instead of 3000 bleacher seats located on both sides of the field, the county plans to erect only 800 seats, and only on one side of the field.
County officials confirm that inflation and other rising costs forced the downsizing of the facility. “Basically the million dollars will just cover phase one of the stadium,” explains Laura Phillips, spokeswoman for the county's Park and Recreation Department. “That will consist of a field house on the home team side of the stadium, which will have a restroom, team lockers, storage, and a concession to sell food and drink. And this will also buy lighting for the football/soccer field. The remaining money will go toward the seats, which as you know will have to be [handicapped accessible].”
The decade-old Americans with Disabilities Act mandates equal access and opportunity for people with physical handicaps. The stadium plans drafted after the hurricane did not incorporate ADA requirements into the design, in part because at the time the new law was poorly understood and enforced. Now county bureaucrats more experienced with ADA issues insist that wheelchairs at the proposed stadium must have access to even the top row of bleachers. This is a significant change, and the cost of the grandstand has risen accordingly.
Even so, Burnside insists the county's new asking price is unnecessarily inflated. “They're telling me it will cost $385,000 for 1500 bleachers,” he complains. “I got a price from a company in Tampa that will put them in for less than half that. Heck, I could buy temporary bleachers for less than ten grand. I know somebody is full of baloney.”
Burnside speculates that the uncommon success of Southridge's athletic teams is a primary reason why the facility has yet to be built. The school regularly fields exceptional squads in baseball, softball, wrestling, and other sports. Southridge's football team survived fiercely competitive county opposition to win the state title twice in the 1990s. Last season Southridge finished as state runner-up, losing the championship by a touchdown to Tallahassee Lincoln.