Miami-Dade County commissioners divided over fate of proposed Marlins Stadium
By Risa Polansky and Zachary S. Fagenson
With a project-threatening legal issue out of the way for now, Miami-Dade is to move forward with plans to build a $515 million Marlins stadium, officials say — but it's unclear whether the project has commissioners' blessings.
It would take five "no" votes to strike out the construction, management and other pending agreements staffers are to present to the 13-member commission next month.
Of the eight commissioners who returned reporters' phone calls, three said they plan to vote against, four are decidedly pro-stadium and one plans to decide once staffers answer lingering questions.
The nays: Katy Sorenson, Carlos Gimenez and Javier Souto.
"I've always been opposed to public money for a stadium," Ms. Sorenson said. "Owners can well afford to build their own stadium."
Few know for sure whether that's so. The team did not disclose its financials to county officials or the public in striking the deal, which calls for $120 million from the team as well as an added $35 million rent paid at $2.3 million annually.
In a ruling last week, Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen called it a "sweet deal" for the Marlins.
For that reason and others, auto dealer Norman Braman sued the county and the City of Miami over its so-called "global agreement" of major public works projects, which includes the stadium.
A chief beef: the public should have had a chance to weigh in on the multi-billion-dollar mega-deal, he says.
Though she peppered her written decision with criticisms and questions about the stadium deal, Judge Cohen last week ruled against Mr. Braman on his sixth of seven counts, finding that building the stadium serves a public purpose, as the county has said.
Mr. Braman said he plans to appeal.
One decision in his suit remains.
It depends on a state Supreme Court ruling on a related issue in Escambia County that would clarify how redevelopment dollars — the linchpin of the global agreement — can be used and whether a referendum would be required.
Still, County Manager George Burgess says stadium plans are to move forward, maintaining that the final decision "has nothing to do with" the ballpark project.
"We're meeting with the city and with the team pretty heavily," he said, predicting the construction, management and other documents will be completed within three to four weeks.
The agreements were supposed to have been in place by July, according to the timeline that would have the Marlins in their new home by opening day 2011, when their lease at Dolphin Stadium expires.
Mr. Burgess said this summer he expected the commission to vote in September, predicting the months-long delay would not impede the tight timetable.
Now, he's less sure.
"The court case obviously caused some delays," he said.
The construction is up to the team, and "it's a possibility" the hold-ups could push the 2011 deadline.
"It's a tight schedule," Mr. Burgess said. "But it's not something that has us concerned, really."
Commission Chair Bruno Barreiro, who said he hopes to place the agreements on an agenda "as soon as possible," also said he's unsure whether an October vote will throw off the schedule.
"I think they're [the Marlins] trying to shoot for it [a 2011 opening]," he said. "I think it's becoming more and more difficult to reach that timeline, 2011… "I don't know if [voting in] October triggers that delay."
Enough opponents on the commission could trigger more than a delay — five nays could kill the agreements.
"The deal itself is a bad business deal," long-time opponent Mr. Gimenez said.
"If the owner sells the team, basically two years after the construction is finished, they retain all the earnings, and we the people of Miami-Dade County who contributed a lot of money so the value of the team would go up, would get nothing."
The deal with the Marlins specifies that the team would pay the county 10% of net revenues of any sale that occurred the first year after the 37,000-seat, retractable roof stadium opens. The percentage would drop each year over five years, ending with the Marlins subject to paying the county 5% of net revenues from any sale that occurs at the end of five years. The contract establishes a base worth of the team of $250 million at the opening of the stadium.
Mr. Gimenez says he's not against the idea of a stadium, only the terms of the agreement.
"My mind may only change if the deal changes."
A public vote might change Commissioner Javier Souto's mind.
He said he's awaiting the final hearing in the Braman case.
"I'm not against the team or against a stadium for the team. It's the matter in which this thing has been worked out by the manager and the way he put all these deals together, this whole mega-plan, and the lack of public input into that, which is a horrible thing for democracy," he said. "If the people don't have a say — there's hundreds of millions of dollars involved in this — I'd probably vote no."
It's the mega-deal that could throw off the impending stadium votes, Commissioner Joe Martinez said in April and again in June.
He did not return calls for this article.
But he said over the summer that, because of the global agreement's ties to the stadium and its controversial funding scheme, "I don't think there are enough votes" for the stadium contracts.
Without its link to the mega-deal, "I think it (the stadium) would be almost unanimous."
He said back in April he planned to vote against stadium agreements because he does not support spending public funds for a private entity.
Commissioner Sally Heyman is undecided.
"While I agree baseball is a wonderful activity, I have issues that haven't been resolved," she said, including who's responsible for what infrastructure costs and where the money would come from should the project incur cost overruns.
The general baseball stadium agreement approved by the county and city this year says the team is responsible for overruns and requires the stadium developer to provide evidence of a bank line of credit or other financial instrument of at least $20 million for overruns.
But what about beyond $20 million? Ms. Heyman asked.
"We have a set figure for the stadium," she said. "When it goes above that, where will we get the money to pay for that?"
She expressed frustration in having to continue asking the question in the months since the broad baseball deal was passed.
"I can't get answers, and I'm a voting commissioner. Get me the answer, and I'll give you my vote."
Mr. Burgess said the county, city and team are continuing to iron out logistics during frequent meetings. Staff also plans to meet with commissioners to address their concerns.
Mr. Burgess has said the team is on the hook for any overruns.
Opponent Mr. Braman insists the Marlins don't have the money, basing his claim on his study of the Marlins' 2003 fiscal picture when asked to invest.
Some commissioners have faith in the project.
"I'm in favor," Mr. Barreiro said. "I think it's the right thing to do for this county."
A new stadium here could boost the tourism industry and provide jobs, Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz said.
If numbers in the deal don't change in light of the court delays, he plans to vote yes.
"If everything goes the way it was presented to us, I'm in favor of keeping baseball in Miami-Dade County."
The tourism and convention dollars backing the stadium are meant for such enterprises, Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said, and Miami-Dade, the "gateway to the Americas," should have top-notch tourist attractions that could boost the industry here and help governments "depend less on property taxes."
She said she plans to vote in favor but does hope, she said, that the team will reiterate in writing its commitment to its end of the bargain, including paying its share and keeping the Marlins in Miami.
Commissioner Dennis Moss said he's also a yes — so long as other elements of the global agreement don't go out the window once the stadium appears to be a go.
One example: the agreement calls for expanding community redevelopment agency boundaries in Overtown to capture more revenue for the troubled area.
"I just want to make sure that these other improvements, they don't just end, if you will, with the Marlins stadium."