If You Build It

Grocery shopping can be a bitch.

Before you've picked up the staples -- peanut butter, bread, milk, cereal, pasta -- you find yourself in the booze aisle ogling a six-pack. You don't exactly need it, but you kind of do. Is it worth the extra seven bucks? Will you have to return the broccoli to afford it? Will it make your life better?

You buy the beer.

Miamians have been buying a lot of beer lately -- figuratively that is. Beyond the billions (that's billions with a B) allotted for projects such as renovating the airport and constructing a port tunnel, we've spent more than half a billion dollars in the past seven years to build the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, the American Airlines Arena, and other event spaces. Yet those behemoths -- and others that preceded them -- are mostly underattended and cost taxpayers more than $15 million per year.

Things are so bad at the Carnival Center that city fathers last week threatened a takeover.

So what is the solution? Buy more multimillion-dollar six-packs, of course.

New art and science museums worth a whopping $275 million are slated for Bicentennial Park. Then there's the almost half-billion-dollar proposal for a new Marlins stadium. And renovation of the aging and sparsely attended Orange Bowl would cost $206 million.

"We've had more arenas than most cities have Golden Arches," says longtime sports radio host Hank "The Hammer" Goldberg. During his 40 years in the subtropics, the 66-year-old Goldberg has seen construction of at least ten landmarks. They are, he says, built with good intentions but plagued by poor planning, little public input, and sloppy fiscal oversight.

He's so right. Among the problems:

The Miami Arena -- built in 1988 but inadequate and out-of-date within a decade. It cost $52 million and was sold in 2004 for $28 million.

The Homestead Sports Complex -- cost $18 million in 1991 with dreams of hosting the Cleveland Indians for spring training. The team never came, and the complex has attracted little more than occasional softball and soccer games. Yearly operating expenses paid by the City of Homestead are almost a half-million.

The Dade County Auditorium -- the Concert Association of Florida fled the less-than-attractive space last year and attendance dropped by 20,000, contributing to a $104,000 operating loss.

American Airlines Arena -- the privately built, seven-year-old venue, which occupies public waterfront, is scheduled to host only eight events during the next five months, according to its Website.

The Miami Art Museum -- the downtown institution attracted only 60,064 visitors (about 240 a day) last year.

In some ways, it seems Miami has great ambition but no plan for developing the arts. Intentions are good -- but costs are too high -- and attendance is far too low. It seems sometimes that people would rather stay in their air-conditioned homes than attend cultural or sporting events -- and officials haven't come up with a way to break the barrier.

Social activist Max Rameau explains the city's event-space obsession this way: "Miami wants to be this big town, you know, step up and be New York. I don't know if elected officials here have an inferiority complex."

For their part, Carnival Center officials point to steadily increasing attendance numbers (from 30 percent capacity at first to 70 percent now), an expansive lineup of performances (more than 200 per year) offered nowhere else, and numerous community outreach and education programs.

Operating costs are paid from a fund designated for the venue and so shouldn't be considered a drain on public money, they argue. In a recent "call to action," center officials urged supporters to get behind "one of our community's greatest resources."

Dr. Sanford Ziff, who contributed ten million dollars to the center's construction, says the venue needs better marketing and more consistent programming. But he points out that the resident companies -- including Florida Grand Opera, Miami City Ballet, and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra -- "all had a great season as attendance is concerned." Ziff cites the increased tax base created by the center, as it continues to spur development along Biscayne Boulevard, as ample reason for short-term subsidies.

Then there's the proposed new Miami Art Museum in Bicentennial Park, to be renamed Museum Park. It will play "a key role in the city's efforts to make Greater Miami a global capital in the 21st Century," MAM's Website trumpets.

In support of it, Terry Riley, the institution's director, recently called on the city to resist an anti-cultural stance and to embrace a vision of Miami as an urbane metropolis. He says the new museum will help revitalize downtown and bring economic development.

Of course, there's no doubt the value of art and culture to any city is not quantifiable in dollars and cents. If Miami is to become a world-class city, it can't nitpick over financial details at the cost of building -- and running -- world-class cultural facilities.

Indeed every city subsidizes the arts in some way. Among the leaders in that category, New York helped the Museum of Modern Art with $75 million toward its recent $858 million structural overhaul. All told, the city gives MoMA about $90 million per year in subsidies and tax breaks.

Cultural and sporting event spaces are crucial to a community's vitality, says Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a nonpartisan group that advocates limited government and low taxes. But planners should first consider whether existing facilities could serve the same purpose. Once a project gets a green light, Sepp says, it's crucial to maintain accountability every step of the way -- something Miami isn't exactly famous for.

So rather than spend more millions on more soon-to-be-antiquated facilities, Miami needs to quantify how cultural and sporting facilities will improve living for everyone -- so-called "spillover benefits," according to Philip Porter, an economics professor at the University of South Florida. "The only rationale for public subsidies is spillover benefits," he says. "And I see no way to benefit from a museum or a stadium if I do not attend."

Rameau has a good idea about how Miami could spend the millions now wasted on cultural facilities: low-income housing. The Carnival Center, Rameau continues deadpan, should be "used for demolition practice exercises. It's going to be a [financial] burden on our children."

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Rob Jordan
Contact: Rob Jordan