By Sabrina Rodriguez
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For more than a year basketball fans have fretted over whether the Miami Heat will remain downtown when their lease with the Miami Arena expires in 1998. Heat management claims the arena, built for the franchise six years ago at a cost of $46 million to city taxpayers, is not big enough to generate the profit they need, and team owners have threatened to move the club out of town unless the city or Dade County agrees to build them a new arena. City officials have pleaded with the Heat to stay, offering to expand the arena at an estimated cost of $80 million in public funds. But negotiations have gone nowhere.
Enter H. Wayne Huizenga.
Last week the chairman of Blockbuster Entertainment announced plans to buy a controlling interest in two companies, which in essence will give him control over the Miami Arena.
Insiders say the move, which will also allow Huizenga a virtual veto on construction of a new arena in Miami, may be the key maneuver in an ingenious scheme to keep the Heat and the Huizenga-owned Florida Panthers hockey team playing in downtown Miami and help the megamogul secure public funding for Blockbuster Park, the sports-and-entertainment complex he proposes to construct on the Dade-Broward line.
Over the past six months Huizenga and his representatives have told city and county officials that they would allow the Panthers to play half their home schedule in the Miami Arena and half in Huizenga's anticipated 20,000-seat arena -- provided the Miami Heat consent to the same plan.
"We've got a firm commitment on the part of Wayne Huizenga that if the Heat agrees to split seasons, they'll go along," confirms County Commissioner Maurice Ferre. "He's told us, 'Stop looking for a solution. Don't waste your money modifying the arena. We have the answer.' I think it's a brilliant tactical move on his part."
A move, some say, that comes with a compelling ulterior motive. "Obviously Wayne wants to lock up as much public funding as possible for his new [arena] facility," says a high-ranking city official who requested anonymity. "Him coming in like a white knight and helping to keep the Heat and Panthers downtown is about the best way to secure public support I could imagine."
Huizenga has not made clear how much public money he wants for his 2000-acre project -- which is slated to include the hockey arena, a stadium for his Florida Marlins, a theme park, a golf course, and movie-production studios. But Blockbuster did issue a statement last week claiming that the sports facilities cannot be self-sustaining without public support.
"There are only so many dollars that the city and county can come up with," says Rick Rochon, president of Huizenga Holdings. "Clearly, if they're going to build another arena in Miami, that's going to leave fewer funds available for the Blockbuster Park arena."
Rochon stresses, however, that Huizenga's purchase of Leisure Management International, which manages the Miami Arena and seven other facilities across the U.S., was primarily motivated by Huizenga's interest in the company itself. "There are a lot of logistics that would have to be worked out for split seasons to work," Rochon adds. "But Wayne still thinks it's a heck of an idea."
So do city officials. "It doesn't look like the Heat, or the NBA, is going to go for a retrofit of the Miami Arena," says Mayor Steve Clark, summing up his ineffective negotiations with the Heat. "A split season would be great. I expect the idea will come up the next time we talk."
Bill Perry, executive director of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, the city agency that technically owns the arena, agrees: "Obviously, to have something is much better than nothing at all."
Huizenga cannot force the Heat to go along with his plan. But his anticipated purchase of Decoma Venture -- the company that built the arena and subcontracts its operation to Leisure Management -- will allow him to exercise a clause in Decoma's 1986 contract with the city of Miami that restricts the city's ability to construct a new facility.
Conceivably, the county could still agree to build the Heat an arena that is neither within the city limits nor in Blockbuster Park. Though Ferre says the county manager's office informed him this past week that up to $82 million was available for such an option, county officials have yet to meet with team management to discuss any details.
"My first choice would be a new arena in Dade," says Ferre. "But more and more that looks unlikely. If we can't get a new facility, split seasons sounds like a great and acceptable solution."
Whether the Heat would agree is another matter. Heat managing partner Lewis Schaffel has made it clear that he not only wants a new building but also a measure of control over its revenue sources, including advertising, concessions, and parking. This would be an unlikely arrangement if the team were to play in Huizenga-owned facilities. "I don't think it's real," Schaffel says of the split-seasons plan. "I don't think it has an ounce of credibility to it. Something that hasn't even been proposed to the Heat can't be important, and this hasn't even been insinuated in any discussions we've had.