Despite University of Miami athletic director Dan Radakovich proclaiming the university is happy with its football team playing 20 miles away from campus at Hard Rock Stadium, billionaire attorney John H. Ruiz is still all-in for building a 60,000 seat stadium for the UM football team at Tropical Park in Westchester.
While some Miami Hurricanes fans applaud Ruiz's effort to help the university's struggling football team, many local residents are mobilizing to prevent development at the park.
"I am 100 percent behind public parks being for community public open space and recreational use," county resident Amanda Prieto tells New Times. "That's why we have parks, and with increased density and growth, our parks become even more important."
Prieto created SaveTropicalPark.com and an associated petition, which has received nearly 3,000 signatures, in opposition to the stadium proposal. She previously had been involved in the "Save Calusa" campaign to block development of the former Calusa Country Club and golf course in West Kendall.
"My gut reaction to any corporate priority or for-profit on a public park is going to be, 'No,' but I understand a lot of people might be in the middle on this," Prieto says. "I want to make sure that people are as informed as possible about where they can get involved. I respect the process."
In order to build on public land, Ruiz is required to submit formal plans to the Miami-Dade County Commission for approval before the proposal goes to a countywide vote. He has yet to do so; instead, he has elected to reveal his preliminary plans via Twitter. His online posts indicate he wants to lease the land and construct a site similar to the ESPN World of Sports Complex in Orlando that would include a stadium, hotels, restaurants, an underground parking garage, and a University of Miami Health facility, among other developments.
Ruiz, the founder of MSP Recovery law firm, initially floated the idea of a new UM stadium in the spring of 2022 when he proposed building a stadium at Coral Gables High School. That plan was shot down after Ruiz was met with fierce backlash from Coral Gables residents. He then pivoted to the park, which he says is "majorly run down" and underutilized.
"It is 270 acres of underutilized land. I’m here to make the county money not take away," Ruiz tweeted to his 16,000 followers. "What we propose is exceedingly better than what is there now."
The county has had a contentious recent history of leasing public land to private entities for sports venues, including a deal for the operation of Miami Heat's FTX Arena in downtown. The Miami city commission meanwhile received stark criticism for the Miami Freedom Park deal as it granted owners of the Inter Miami soccer team a no-bid, 99-year lease for one of the county's largest green spaces.
Given the criticism that these deals have been beneficial to the venues' stakeholders at the cost of taxpayers, local resident David Quiñones says the county should not give anymore "handouts" of public land.
"People who are diehard sports fans continually get duped," Quiñones tells New Times. "We've fallen for this trick over and over. What we get in exchange is nothing compared to what we give away."
Quiñones, a public relations executive and journalist who has spent nearly two decades visiting Tropical Park — either to report on high school sports or to spend Friday nights with family eating at the local food trucks — says the park "is incredibly important to the local ecosystem."
"Drive through Tropical Park on a Sunday and tell me if it is underutilized," Quiñones says.
Westchester resident Nick Durán hopes the #SaveTropicalPark campaign will force Ruiz to be more transparent about what exactly he is looking to build at the park.
"My greatest concern is that John Ruiz is just controlling the entire conversation about this," Durán tells New Times. "The playbook has been to pit Canes fans against Westchester residents who are legitimately concerned about this and asking questions: Anyone who challenges this is really just either a 'hater' or they 'haven't done their homework.'"
Ruiz's spokesperson Diana Diaz did not respond to requests for comment from New Times.
Aldo Gonzalez, spokesperson for District 10 commissioner Javier Souto, who represents Westchester, tells New Times the commissioner is against any private development of Tropical Park. However, Souto will be out of office come November with current state House Rep. Anthony Rodriguez taking over his post.
"The commissioner is very clear on where he stands on the subject," Gonzalez says on behalf of Souto. "Not a stadium; no hotel; nothing."
Quiñones understands UM football fans want a stadium closer to campus, but he says the venue does not have to be at the cost of losing a public park.
"Why does it have to involve public land?" Quiñones says. "There are huge swaths of industrial acres available in this county."
It seems Ruiz and his son Johnny are letting neither criticism nor the team's stunning loss this past weekend to Middle Tennessee State discourage them from pursuing their dream stadium.
"An empty stadium and a team comes out flat," Johnny wrote on Twitter after the loss on September 24. "Canes need a smaller stadium they can call their own that students show up to. If you want status quo with this program, continue saying [Hard Rock Stadium] is fine. Need a change of scenery. Period."