Arena Winners and Losers: Alex Shoots, Alex Scores!

The arena war is over. No more obnoxious commercials. No more slick brochures in the mail. No more annoying telephone calls asking for your support. A surprise pact between Miami Heat owner Micky Arison and Dade Mayor Alex Penelas goosed up voter confidence enough that the project enjoyed an overwhelming victory. The old deal called for the county to spend $8.5 million a year to construct the new arena. The new deal, negotiated in secret and triumphantly announced on the Friday before the Tuesday election, calls for the county to spend $8.5 million a year to operate the new arena.

A net savings of ... well, you can do the math.
Of course, the biggest change is that the county now has a chance to recoup a portion of that $8.5 million through parking fees, naming rights to the facility, and other sources of arena revenue -- income the county was not going to be able to touch under the original proposal because it was supposed to flow to the Miami Heat. The exact amount the county will save is unknown.

It is abundantly clear, however, that Dade residents want to put this debacle behind them. But before that happens, it is my journalistic duty to declare winners and losers in a contest this grand, to march across the still-smoldering battlefield not only acknowledging the victors but taking one last shot at the wounded.

WINNER: Alex Penelas
In recent American political history, newly elected leaders have apparently felt compelled to announce their arrival in a big way. Ronald Reagan sent the military to Grenada to knock over a few fruit stands and ensure the world a decent supply of nutmeg. George Bush invaded Panama and blasted the papal nuncio with rock and roll. Bill Clinton decided that the gravest threat to America's national security was a Somali warlord in the ghettos of Mogadishu -- although that operation didn't quite work out as planned.

Now comes Penelas. Sure, he could have sent SWAT teams into Sweetwater under the pretense of restoring democracy, but that would have been too easy. Penelas needed to send a signal to the real power brokers of Dade County -- Miami's downtown business establishment. And what better way to do that than to slap around one of their own, Micky Arison.

Arison's father was a charter member of Miami's old-boy network, and Micky, though just a legacy, is nonetheless an impressive trophy for the mayor to hang in his office. Penelas faces a real problem, however, if he starts thinking that big-game hunting is always going to be this easy. Only time will tell whether this was just a lucky shot.

LOSER: Micky Arison
Micky Arison spends more than three million dollars on an advertising campaign and winds up with a worse deal. It would be comical if it weren't so damn depressing to think about how that money could have been used to improve the community instead of bombarding the public with worthless television commercials. At the very least, Arison could have saved himself millions if he had struck a fair deal with the county six months ago. He still might have needed to run a few commercials to convince voters that a waterfront site was acceptable, but what last week's vote demonstrated was that taxpayers were not willing to build a new arena for a billionaire.

Arison's hubris throughout the campaign was nothing short of amazing. Back in June the shipping magnate forced the county into an agreement by threatening to move to Broward, a tactic his own negotiators later admitted was a bluff. Then, when members of the public demanded the right to vote on the use of public land and money, Arison went to court to halt the ballot initiative. When his lawsuit failed, he mounted his multimillion-dollar ad campaign. Only after all these schemes failed -- and the polls showed he was going to lose -- did he finally agree to renegotiate the original deal with Dade.

WINNERS: Herman Echevarria, Raul Masvidal, Mario Diaz-Balart
Or as I now like to call them, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.
Playing ably to Penelas's D'Artagnan, these musketeers saddled up in Hialeah, rode into town, and stared down Micky Arison, Pat Riley, and the rest of the Miami Heat. It is almost a meaningless exercise to try to determine if this is a better deal -- or to what extent it is a better deal -- than the package Tony Ridder negotiated months ago. All anyone will remember is this: Micky blinked first.

The biggest winner in the group is Echevarria, who is already planning his challenge next year to Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. He emerges as a champion of the taxpayers and a fighter for the little guy against a tyrannical billionaire. Echevarria knows you can't buy the kind of publicity he has been receiving. Well, okay, maybe you can buy it in some of the newspapers around Hialeah, but why pay for it when you can get it for free.

Masvidal is a close second. In 1985 he lost a vicious race against Maurice Ferre for mayor of Miami, and in the late Eighties and early Nineties federal regulators seized two of his banks, draining him of his wealth. The arena deal marks Masvidal's dramatic return to the political scene.

LOSER: Tony Ridder
Last month's civic champion is this month's civic goat. It's a sad day in corporate America when a 34-year-old rookie mayor, a disgraced former banker, and a couple of local politicians can negotiate a better deal than the chairman of Knight-Ridder Inc. Maybe that explains why the company's stock isn't performing up to expectations. Ridder should consider tapping into Penelas's talent pool to solve a few of his own problems. Perhaps Echevarria could fly up to Detroit and settle that nasty newspaper strike. Why not let Diaz-Balart take a crack at diversifying the company's portfolio to include a few cash-rich television stations. And see how this sounds: Raul Masvidal, publisher of the Miami Herald.

LOSER: Broward County
What a bunch of sycophantic Dade County wannabes. There is little doubt that Broward is a cultural wasteland with a major inferiority complex. But Dade's latest deal with the Miami Heat only serves to illustrate what a pathetic bunch of losers live just north of us. Earlier this year Broward County commissioners were so excited at the prospect of stealing from Dade County the Florida Panthers, and possibly even the Heat, that they gave Wayne Huizenga every single thing he wanted, including $212 million in taxpayer money to build him an extravagant new arena.

WINNER: Dan Paul
Without Paul's petition drive, which forced the arena issue to a vote, none of the improvements to the deal negotiated by Penelas's team would have been possible. Having the issue on the ballot pressured Arison to make the concessions for which Penelas and others are now taking credit. Paul stood up for the public's right to vote on a matter of great community importance, and backed his words with $70,000 of his own money, which he used to hire a professional petition organizer to collect the 48,000 signatures needed. And why did Paul have to pay? Why didn't the county commissioners place the issue on the ballot themselves? Because James Burke, Gwen Margolis, Dennis Moss, Natacha Millan, and Pedro Reboredo voted down Katy Sorenson's motion to let the people decide the arena's future. In the coming weeks, when the arena deal goes to the county commission for final approval, each of those politicians should thank Paul for his work, and acknowledge their own stupidity and shortsighted handling of this entire affair.

LOSER: City of Miami
Will somebody please explain to me how a city that is $70 million in the hole -- and looking at a long-term financial crisis -- can afford to give away a piece of waterfront property that is probably worth more than $50 million?

LOSER: Dan Paul
While Paul may have won the battle to save taxpayers millions of dollars, he lost the war he feels most passionately about -- the preservation of publicly owned waterfront land. This was always the toughest aspect of Paul's quest. How do you make people see the value of a piece of property that the city shamefully neglected for two decades, and that to the average person appears to be nothing more than a blighted slab of concrete inhabited by junkies and the homeless?

LOSER: Residents of Overtown
Ten years ago, when plans to build the current Miami Arena were first introduced, the people of Overtown were promised that economic development would revive their community as a result of the Heat coming to the neighborhood. The team even promised to build a new youth center in the area. The vote completes the circle of broken promises. The Heat will be moving to the east side of Biscayne Boulevard, and the old arena will sit empty and without much future -- a fitting monument to Overtown.