Sudden Wayne Change

Wayne Huizenga drives a hard bargain at Homestead racetrack -- he'll make millions while Dade taxpayers are taken for a ride

"Would I have voted to build the track if Sanchez had not been there? Probably not. There's no question that there was an implied fiduciary responsibility on the part of Ralph, one that was supposed to extend into the future. Now, can I blame him for walking away with a pile of bucks? No. Why should he and Huizenga be any different than anyone else?"

Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, who voted against the motorsport monies, calls the proposed lease sellout a "disgrace," an "outrage," and "beyond the pale."

"As far as I'm concerned, this is a fraud being perpetrated on the people of Dade County. Every citizen in Dade County got screwed in the original deal and now they're going to get screwed again," Kaplan says. "For Ralph to sell out now really leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air.

"I like and respect Ralph Sanchez and I believe in his credibility," Kaplan continues. "The only explanation for this is that he's getting squeezed by Huizenga. Huizenga's a shark, and when you play with a shark, you're going to get bit. Ralph was the heart and soul of this thing, but for Huizenga it's just another business deal. But it's not just another business deal. This is about control over a publicly funded facility -- it's not there to be bought and sold and bartered."

Huizenga, the billionaire owner of the Dolphins, Marlins, and Panthers, has come under increasing public criticism for using tax dollars and political influence to maintain and expand his profitable business empire. In recent weeks, for example, Huizenga has sought to rewrite state law to get a $60 million sales tax rebate to renovate Pro Player Stadium in North Dade and make it a better home for the Miami Dolphins football team. But Huizenga already received a $60 million tax rebate in 1991 and used it to renovate the stadium for Florida Marlins baseball games.

Last year Huizenga persuaded Broward County commissioners to build a $185 million stadium for use by his Florida Panthers ice hockey team. Construction is under way now, bankrolled by a massive bond issue that will eventually be paid back by tourist taxes, tax rebates, and stadium revenues.

Meanwhile, Huizenga and the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority are fighting one another in court over management rights to the publicly owned Miami Arena. In another lawsuit Huizenga claims that Pro Player Stadium should be exempt from Dade County property taxes, owing to a 1994 amendment to state law designed to attract sports teams to Florida.

While critical of Huizenga's public-private profiteering, Kaplan reserves his harshest comments for a former colleague, ex-county commission chairman and Metro mayoral candidate Arthur E. Teele, Jr. Along with former commissioner Larry Hawkins, Teele was responsible for shepherding the Homestead racetrack monies through the commission in 1993. Years earlier, between 1976 and 1980, Teele's Tallahassee law firm represented Daytona International Speedway, one of four tracks owned by the France family's International Speedway Corp.

More recently Teele served on the Florida Tax and Budget Reform Commission and was the principal sponsor of a 1992 amendment designed to eliminate tax breaks for business tenants in public buildings. The two-sentence proposal contained a one-sentence exemption for the Daytona International Speedway.

"I think the state attorney should immediately launch an investigation into Art Teele's role in this -- that is to say, the question of whether Teele set this up from the beginning in order to steer the lease to his good friend and former employer Bill France," Kaplan fumes. "It's way too coincidental, and I don't believe in coincidence."

Neither Teele nor Hawkins could be reached for comment for this story.

Ralph Sanchez, a Cuban-born real estate developer, organized the first Miami Grand Prix fifteen years ago. For a decade the money-losing event was run each year in late February or early March in downtown Miami with generous public assistance from City of Miami coffers. In 1992, with a proposed seaport expansion threatening to overtake the Grand Prix site, Sanchez and lobbyist Ron Book unsuccessfully courted the city of North Miami as an alternate venue. Then they turned their sights toward Homestead, population 27,000.

There Sanchez found a receptive audience in the person of City Manager Alex Muxo, Jr. Muxo began his public career as the youngest city administrator in South Florida, and by 1992 he was the highest-paid. More important for Sanchez's purposes, Muxo had a taste for glittery, big-ticket public works projects.

Noting a previously unnoticed paragraph in the Florida statutes, Muxo forced the county in 1989 to give Homestead $12 million in hotel bed-tax revenues for the construction of a major-league baseball stadium. Prior to that date, other city managers had believed the money was reserved for projects in Miami Beach, the primary source of the tourist tax. The deal was something of a stunner, and in the aftermath Muxo came to be regarded as a local hero in Homestead -- a sly fox who kept a copy of Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal in his office credenza. (Though Muxo later wooed both the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Indians, neither baseball team settled on the stadium as a spring-training home. Today it remains empty much of the year, costing the city approximately $500,000 in annual upkeep.)

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