Plans for aquatic center at arena raise interest at City Hall
By Paola Iuspa
Miami's city commissioners seem to welcome a proposal to put the money-losing Miami Arena in the hands of a developer who wants to convert the venue into an aquatic center for water shows and sports.
Zev Buffman, an entertainment industry developer, award-winning Broadway producer and former owner of the Miami Heat basketball team, has a concept for transforming the 13-year old arena into what he calls an "aquarena."
Although in the early stages, Mr. Buffman, now residing in California, said he would return next week to Miami to detail his proposal to city commissioners. He met independently about two weeks ago with a few elected officials and business leaders during a three-day trip to South Florida.
Converting the building would cost about $35 million, Mr. Buffman said. About 75% of the arena, which is owned and run by the city's Miami Exhibition & Sports Authority, could remain as is under the plan.
While he would run the venue, Mr. Buffman said he would lease it from the authority. The cost of the redevelopment could come from the authority by issuing bonds or from the developer who could assume the debt with the authority's backing, according to the proposal.
The arena - built in 1989 to be home to the Miami Heat and later to the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers - became deficit-laden when both team left for new facilities. The Heat moved in 2000 to the American Airlines Arena about five blocks to the east and the Panthers migrated in 1999 to Sunrise.
With a projected $900,000 deficit, the Park West venue now primarily hosts shows such as Disney on Ice, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and University of Miami basketball, the latter of which will move next year to a new center on campus.
Polled about the aquatics center proposal during the past week, four of Miami's five city commissioners, plus Mayor Manny Diaz, said they are open to it as a new use for the arena.
Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr., an authority board member, said he "strongly" endorsed the proposal. But, he said, the authority, city and the county would have to be involved in the decision-making process.
"All he recommends is do-able," Mr. Teele said.
Under Mr. Buffman's plan, the 16,600 seats would be cut to 7,500. The basketball court would become an Olympic-sized pool surrounded by theater seating. Olympic swimmers, divers and gymnasts would present a Cirque du Soleil-inspired "musical quasi-circus" extravaganza, under Mr. Buffman's plans.
The pool floor would have hydraulic platforms so the venue still could be used for concerts, trade shows and other sports. Mr. Buffman said he would offer drowning prevention and other programs, including for disabled children in summer when the season slows.
Commissioner Johnny Winton, former vice chair of the sports authority, said he wants to hear more but is interested in the proposal because of Mr. Buffman's reputation.
The former Miami Beach resident bought the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1962, restored it and sold it to the state in 1972. He also restored the Jackie Gleason Theater in 1976 and was an anchor tenant until 1989, when he sold his businesses in Florida and moved to Hollywood, CA.
And, Commissioner Joe Sanchez said he has no problem with Mr. Buffman reinventing the arena as long as "it is profitable to the city.
"We don't want to create another white elephant like the Metrorail that no one uses, the arena itself and the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami."
The city-owned Knight Center is part of the downtown Hyatt Hotel complex, 400 SE Second St. The Knight auditorium is used often for small concerts and corporate meetings. The city spends about $2 million every year to run the venue.
Mayor Manny Diaz in past months has suggested selling or razing the arena to make room for new development. He said last week he welcomed Mr. Buffman's idea.
In an effort to reverse the arena's financial situation, the sports authority in March got rid of the company that was managing the arena, SMG, and took over the administration, including event bookings and advertising sales.
Ferey Kian, director of finance for the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority, said his team was aiming at increasing the arena's use to at least three events weekly.
The problem, Commissioner Teele said, is that many of those events are community programs that tap city funds.
"The Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority," Mr. Teele said, "is costing taxpayers million of dollars a year. The city spent over $40,000 this past weekend for a Haitian award ceremony. We spent money in air-conditioning and other utilities. Do you want that to continue? There needs to be a limit to that."
Though not opposing the aquatic center plan, Commissioner Tomás Regalado, authority vice chair, said he would like to give Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority a year to turn things around before making a decision.
"We ought to give the authority an opportunity to prove they can fill the arena," Mr. Regalado said. "I am sure the arena could hold about 30 events yearly. We have enough people in our city to attend sports events, concerts and family shows" that are too small to fill the American Airlines Arena.