Aquatic rehab seen as new life for Miami Arena
By Paola Iuspa
Zev Buffman, award-winning Broadway producer and a founder of the Miami Heat basketball team, is proposing converting Miami Arena into an aquatics center for theatrical water shows and swimming sports.
"About 75% of the building would remain the same," Mr. Buffman said about his plan. "It could be in operation by November 2003. But right now it is a dream.
The future of the 13-year-old arena is uncertain as the City of Miami looks for alternatives to turn around the site's $900,000 deficit. Since the 2000 opening of the American Airlines Arena, it's used primarily for shows like Disney on Ice and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
"Every month we have two to three events," said Ferey Kian, director of finance for the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority, which runs the city-owned arena. "We are planning to increase those numbers by concentrating on pop singers with an audience of about 7,000."
But Mr. Buffman envisions a more dramatic rebirth.
"I would like to help save and reinvent the arena as I did with the Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Jackie Gleason Theater," he said.
After buying the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1962, Mr. Buffman restored and sold it in 1972 to the state. In 1976, he restored the Jackie Gleason Theater and was its anchor tenant until 1989.
The arena conversion would cost between $30 million to $35 million and the authority, as an arm of the city, could continue to own the site, under the plan.
The authority could issue bonds for the work or Mr. Buffman could acquire the debt with the authority's backing, according to the plan. Mr. Buffman, who spearheaded building the arena - original home to the Heat could lease the site from the authority and run it.
After reviewing the preliminary proposal, Miami City Commissioner Johnny Winton said he was interested.
"The guy behind it has a good history and reputation," he said. "Because of him, I don't discount the concept. He has a good record."
Mr. Buffman also was part owner of the Heat until three years ago, said William Bloom, an attorney who worked with the team.
Mr. Buffman, who now heads Arena Management & Construction, a development firm in Palm Desert, CA, said he is also designing an aqua center in Phoenix.
He met this month with Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and others about his ideas to convert the arena's basketball floor to an Olympic-sized pool. Surrounded by theater seating, it could be a stage for competitive swimming, diving, water polo and ballet.
Under his plan, the 15,000-seats would be cut to 7,500. The pool floor would have hydraulic platforms so the venue still could be used for concerts, trade shows and other sports.
Mayor Diaz, who within the past month suggested razing or selling the arena, said he was open to the idea and would prefer not to tear it down for residential or commercial high-rise use. The mayor, who also heads the city's sports authority, said Mr. Buffman will be back in town next month and deserved an opportunity to outline his plan.
"He was very active here many years ago. I met him way back but never worked with him."