Strike Three, You're Out

Homestead balks at plans to sell its failed baseball complex

Nine months ago the Homestead City Council agreed to let a business group take over the moribund Homestead Sports Complex, a 6500-seat baseball stadium with adjacent athletic fields. More precisely, the complex is a financial sinkhole that cost about $18 million in hotel bed-tax revenues to build, costs Homestead an average of $300,000 annually to maintain, and takes in only about $90,000 per year from the few groups that use it. (It was built in 1991 in hopes of attracting a Major League Baseball franchise for spring training, but that never happened.)

In April of last year the city let Sports World Homestead take over the complex rent-free in return for maintaining the facilities and making about three million dollars in improvements. The group would have an option to buy the 138-acre parcel for $19 million after 21 months. But just three months after making the deal, Homestead had to take back the complex. Sports World hadn't undertaken the promised improvements, and couldn't even make utilities payments. So when another company put together the money to buy the complex outright, it seemed like a no-brainer. Why wouldn't Homestead jump at the chance to get rid of a chronic financial burden?

"I just can't answer that," says Norman Hodge, who has asked himself the same thing ever since Homestead's city council voted down Jeffrey Industries' purchase offer at a meeting this past January 6. "I wish I had more information on this to erase the question mark in my own head."

Hodge was one of three city council members who voted to approve the purchase. "The thing that amazed me," he says, "was that we unanimously approved the Sports World deal, and that group was to lease for 21 months before possibly purchasing, while Jeffrey Industries wanted to close in 45 days. It doesn't get any better than that."

Apparently for four of Hodge's council colleagues the only thing better than offloading the sports albatross is hanging onto it for a while and shelling out some $500,000 for the repairs it requires in the next year.

"We don't know what happened, except that we thought we had a done deal and then the rug was pulled out from under us," says Jeffrey Industries' CFO Peter Andrews, a former NBC executive. "I used to work in TV, and the suspense writers, of course, rarely revealed the murderer until the end of the show. Well, we won't know what happened here and who was behind it until it's over. Whoever emerges with the property -- that's the murderer."

Sherry Miller, a Jeffrey Industries founder, is steaming mad in the wake of the Homestead misadventure. She had planned an entertainment facility that would have included an IMAX theater, semipro baseball games, and a headquarters for a new outfit called the International Roller Derby League. Miller says that after a series of meetings with Homestead officials, she believed the deal was as good as done. In fact she claims she'd already booked circuses and baseball games. "We're having to move all that stuff to Atlantic City and other places now, and I'm losing a lot of my own money in this deal," Miller complains. "I planned to sell my house and move to Homestead. Now I have to sell my house to try to get money together to save my company after spending months of my time and hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Andrews and Miller have been in damage-control mode since their plans were turned upside down. "There were a lot of people involved in this deal," Andrews says. "IMAX, cable networks -- we're busy trying to clean the egg off our face."

Miller: "I jumped through every hoop they asked for. I agreed to donate land for a charter school and for a park. They're not going to find a better deal than the one I offered."

Homestead Mayor Roscoe Warren is also lamenting the loss of the 600 jobs Miller promised as part of her business plan. Warren voted for the purchase, along with council members Hodge and Judy Waldman.

Council members Steve Losner, Lynda Bell, Amanda Garner, and Jeff Porter voted against the purchase, citing concerns about park space, traffic, and noise -- also of concern for a number of Homestead residents who spoke against the Jeffrey plan at the meeting.

Those residents live in Keys Gate, a sprawling new neighborhood developed by M&H Homestead. The company sent a representative to the January 6 council meeting, though he didn't speak -- at least not inside city hall. Steve Shiver, the former county manager and ex-mayor of Homestead who now makes his living as a lobbyist for builders, was there on behalf of M&H Homestead.

Nicko Christides, one of Jeffrey Industries' financial backers, says Shiver registered his disapproval of the sports com-plex purchase the old-fashioned way -- by taking it outside during the council meeting.

"We left the meeting," Christides says, "and we're talking in the parking lot, and [Shiver] starts getting really angry. I was talking about trying to put a hotel on a six-acre parcel near the complex and he says, öYou can't do that.' I said, öSure I can.' He got so mad, and there was actually a little light pushing -- I admit I was part of that. It ended up with him cursing me out and saying, öWho do you think you are? I own this town.'"

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