On the Block

In an act of audacious short-sightedness, Miami is offering its finest bayfront property to the highest bidder

Florida Marlins owner John Henry has painted a picture-perfect plan to build a taxpayer-funded, $400 million, retractable-roof stadium for 38,000 fans in Bicentennial Park. The Boca Raton resident has promised to preserve half of the park's 34 acres as publicly accessible green space. He asserts the stadium will spur an economic renaissance across Biscayne Boulevard in the chronically depressed Park West neighborhood. He has even pledged that 90 percent of the baseball team's profits will go to the public. A city official who declines to be identified contends taxpayers may get a bad deal with Henry's proposal, just as they did with Mickey Arison's American Airlines Arena, which is forecast to cost the public $355 million over 30 years. The official says Henry is plotting to construct shops and restaurants on the site, as has been done at recently completed stadiums like Cleveland's Jacobs Field and Coors Field in Denver. The Marlins owner has approached the cable sports network ESPN about opening an ESPN Zone, a combination restaurant, sports bar, and video-game center, the source says. A shopping corridor would stretch from Bayside to the American Airlines Arena site (where Bongos Cuban Café, owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville will soon open) to the new stadium. (Team president Jonathan Mariner declined to comment.)

In Cleveland and Denver, the team owners have cleverly split their operations into two companies. One controls the baseball team and collects the revenue generated from ticket sales and luxury skyboxes. The other manages the facility and collects all money from stadium parking, concession sales, and retail outlets. If he follows their leads of bifurcating the business, Henry could claim he was losing money, even if profits were high.

Port of Miami-Dade officials covet Watson Island, the former home of the Goodyear blimp, to dock  more cruise ships
Port of Miami-Dade officials covet Watson Island, the former home of the Goodyear blimp, to dock more cruise ships
The Miami City Commission voted to sell Brickell Park, one of the last undeveloped parcels on Brickell Avenue
The Miami City Commission voted to sell Brickell Park, one of the last undeveloped parcels on Brickell Avenue

The scheme has helped make the Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians two of baseball's richest franchises. In 1998 the Rockies generated $124 million in revenue, while the Indians took in $149 million, according to Forbes magazine. The teams cleared $19.5 million and $19 million, respectively. For investing hundreds of millions to build the new stadiums, the public in each of the cities, as well as Baltimore and Chicago, receives a flat rental fee in the $6 million-per-year range, which barely covers the facilities' upkeep, according to the 1997 book Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums, published by Brookings Institution Press. The Marlins have declined to discuss details of their financial plan.

"All of a sudden everyone sees the city land as cheap or free," notes Commissioner Arthur Teele, who wants the stadium located across Biscayne Boulevard in Park West, where it would more clearly spur economic development. "Everything shouldn't have concrete, asphalt, and buildings. There is no reason to offer incentives for waterfront development."

Greg Bush won a battle in the war to preserve the park in February. The tall University of Miami history professor and Marlins vice president Jonathan Mariner squared off before the city's waterfront advisory board in the Miami City Hall commission chambers. Wearing an impeccable dark-green suit, Mariner explained that a ballpark at Bicentennial would offer long-suffering Marlins fans a relaxing bay view. Indeed pictures of Miami's skyline would be beamed around the world during games. "We've listened [to the public]," Mariner concluded. "We ask for people to keep an open mind until our vision is completed."

Bush countered by saying Bicentennial should be redesigned to be more pedestrian-friendly. He ridiculed claims the Marlins had "listened," by pointing out the public had been excluded from meetings between team representatives and city officials. Then he noted the baseball team has hired at least ten lobbyists, including former Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith, former State Rep. Miguel DeGrandy, and a former aide to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. The board passed a resolution urging the city commission to preserve and redesign the park for the people. "This is our last large piece of land in the city," Bush commented. "It should be saved for future generations."

So far, a majority of commissioners oppose Henry's plan. Commissioners Regalado, Winton, and Teele would prefer a stadium located away from the waterfront. "Bicentennial needs to have a master plan that includes the entire zone: Park West, Overtown, and the Omni," Winton says.

Henry is not allowing the bad news to deter him from achieving his dream. He recently convinced State Sen. Ron Silver, a North Miami Beach Democrat, to propose a bill in the legislature that would raise $320 million to finance the stadium. The measure would allow Miami-Dade voters to decide whether to tax cruise passengers up to $4 per trip. The fee would raise more than $20 million annually. The cruise industry, led by Miami Heat owner and Carnival CEO Micky Arison, has employed a stable of lobbyists to oppose the measure.

Miami -- Changing at the Speed of Magic is the title of the eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch brochure, framed with attention-grabbing yellow borders. The front page includes a large photo of Watson Island, showing its proximity to downtown's waterfront. In small letters at the bottom is a phrase sure to entice investors: "Exceptional lease opportunity offered by the City of Miami."

Inside a colorful map highlights the 45-acre southern half of the island just northeast of downtown. On the left are some suggested uses for the property: a large resort hotel, a recreation/entertainment spot, and a megayacht marina. The pamphlet also contains a description of nearby developments like Parrot Jungle, which is scheduled to break ground this summer. It was printed back in 1998, after the city commission voted to offer Watson Island development rights to the highest bidder.

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