Taking the Marlins Downtown

No, we're not talking about McGwire or Griffey. We're talking about a new ballpark.

Picture the Florida Marlins playing home games against the Atlanta Braves in a brand-new stadium in downtown Miami, protected from early-evening rain showers -- and always in front of a sellout crowd. Marlins president Don Smiley has imagined just such a scenario, and he's attempting to make his vision a reality. In a series of meetings with Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, and in separate discussions with mayoral candidate Xavier Suarez, Smiley has discussed the possibility of building a baseball-only stadium with a retractable roof, perhaps along the bayfront.

"I've had talks with Don Smiley, and he's interested in bringing the stadium to downtown Miami," Suarez boasted at a campaign fundraiser two weeks ago. Carollo, who confirmed that he's met several times with Smiley, declined to elaborate on the talks, saying only that they were "substantial" and that "there might be a press conference about this very soon."

The initial meeting, between Smiley and Carollo, was arranged by Hank Goldberg, ESPN commentator and host of a local sports-talk show on WQAM-AM (560). Goldberg says he was inspired by a recent trip to Cleveland, where it struck him how that city's baseball stadium, Jacobs Field, has revitalized the city's entire downtown since the Indians moved in back in 1994. He believes that a new ballpark could work similar magic in the Magic City.

"I called Joe [Carollo] about a month or so ago. I told him about what Smiley was doing and told him that it was a great opportunity for the City of Miami," Goldberg relays. "In Cleveland they took all that area down by the lake and built a baseball stadium, behind which they put the parks. It's really nice. If you put the stadium on the bay like they did in Baltimore, it becomes kind of a part of the landscape. And it's not ugly, not at all."

Of course, Smiley does not actually own the team -- at least not yet. But he is the only prospective buyer to have emerged since current Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga put the team up for sale in June. Smiley, who did not return repeated phone calls from New Times, has stated in the past that the Marlins need a new, retractable-roof stadium if they are going to survive the summer rains that dampen attendance figures at the Huizenga-owned Pro Player Stadium, near the Broward County line.

"We all know that any purchase of the team is dependent upon a new stadium being built," says Suarez, who claims to have spoken with Smiley twice.

City Commissioner Willy Gort, chairman of Miami's Downtown Development Authority, likes the stadium proposal, though this is the first he has heard of it. "They should have done that from the beginning," Gort scolds. "They would have the stadium full every day. Tell me a major city that doesn't have its baseball stadium downtown. If you put it downtown, you get anywhere from 200,000 to half a million people at one time who could possibly go to the game. I think it would be a great idea."

The commissioner, who is up for re-election in a few weeks, tempers his support with a caveat: He's not willing to commit "that much" public money. Gort says a new stadium must be at least a joint venture between the city and the team's owners (whoever they ultimately may be).

Goldberg agrees.
"I didn't get involved in any of the meetings, but one thing I threw out there was that I just didn't want to see the taxpayers ante up any taxes to pay for it," says the sports-talk veteran. "I like the creative way that Cleveland paid for its stadium -- with private money and sin taxes on tobacco and booze."

Construction of Jacobs Field, however, was far from pain-free. Building costs soared over budget, and with debts spiraling, the city struggled to pay taxes on the property. Sin taxes alone could not cover the overruns. "It was a huge giveaway," asserts Cindy Barber, editor of the Cleveland weekly newspaper Free Times. "Basically, it got financed completely through public money." Still, the new stadium -- along with the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and redevelopment of the Flats bar-and-restaurant district -- is widely credited with revitalizing Cleveland's downtown. And it has been good for the team, too: In bald contrast to the Marlins, the Indians have sold out every home game for the past two seasons.

Smiley and Huizenga are closely allied. The Marlins' owner also owns the Dolphins and the Panthers and once attempted to buy the Miami Heat through his brother-in-law Whit Hudson, who now claims he'll invest in the Marlins along with Smiley. But despite that coziness -- and despite the fact that Huizenga two years ago won a new Sunrise arena for his hockey team by threatening to sell the Panthers to out-of-town investors -- Goldberg is convinced that Smiley's talks with Miami officials are not another Huizenga ploy to win a new stadium and retain ownership of the team. "Smiley is sincere," says Goldberg. "I got him and Carollo together because I know Smiley doesn't know the people in Miami; he's a Broward guy. And I know he's really interested in the idea. It makes sense.

 
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