Miami-Dade Commissioners hold noses, mayor gags, Marlins just profit
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade commissioners held their noses Thursday and borrowed $42 million more for the Florida Marlins stadium, the final thin slice of a fat handout that will cost almost $3 billion to repay.
If the stadium isn't the county's biggest giveaway, it's certainly the most visible, not only as it dwarfs neighboring homes in Little Havana but as former backers of the deal become vocal critics.
Those the stadium was supposed to benefit most, the minuscule fan base, haven't been energized.
Stadium construction was supposed to excite fans of a team that last year was 28th among Major League baseball's 30 in ticket sales, averaging just 18,953.
But as of Saturday, as the stadium rose, the Marlins were dead last, down to 17,032 tickets per game — 2,083 less than Tampa, the next-worst team.
Tiny attendance for this team with a losing record, however, is just in Miami-Dade. When the Marlins this year play out of town, they do far better, averaging 29,700 paid attendance, more than 12,000 per game ahead of at home.
While sales at a new stadium should soar next year, the honeymoon will be short because ticket, parking and other prices will soar too. Don't expect this year's $54 special for four tickets, four hot dogs, four soft drinks and two programs. Costs are likely to more than double.
No, it's not fans who will benefit but owners in a sweetheart deal that sends them all revenue — for baseball and other events all year long — for a minimal $2.3 million starting rent. How much of nearly $3 billion in county stadium debt could $2.3 million a year repay?
In fact, $41 million of that rent is to repay the county for bonds it approved Thursday. Those bonds will provide $35 million that the county will then — get this — lend to team owners at no interest for the first share from their rent payments.
Yes, the contract pushed through the county in 2009 offered that and far worse.
As commissioners prepared to vote Thursday, they lambasted that deal. Sally Heyman and Joe Martinez had the right, because they fought the original contract. So did new Mayor Carlos Gimenez as a commissioner.
"There's nothing on this agenda that gags me more than this item," the mayor said. But, he noted later, "It's our contractual obligation to do this."
"If you ask the attorneys, you can't get out of it. It has to be approved," said Mr. Martinez. "I didn't like it then. I don't like it now."
The entire deal "from negotiations on down, in my opinion, was not in good faith," said Commissioner Heyman. "We got the ultimate figures of our obligation after our vote because no one released it." Shamefully, that's correct: as commissioners asked, then County Manager George Burgess stonewalled them.
New commissioners Jean Monestime and Lynda Bell also knocked the deal Thursday. None of the seven remaining who docilely acquiesced two years ago defended it.
Even the Miami Herald has bailed out.
As votes neared in February 2009, the Herald headed an editorial "Now is a good time to build a stadium. Our Opinion: City, county commissioners should approve new home for Marlins."
But in its editorial June 23 supporting Mr. Gimenez for mayor, the paper noted he had battled against the deal: "We disagreed with him then, but details that emerged later about the stadium construction deal show that Mr. Gimenez was right. Miami-Dade should have gotten a better deal to protect taxpayers..."
Never mind that Miami Today had published those details "that emerged later" well before the Herald endorsed the deal. Two years too late, the Herald has jumped ship too.
After last week's final step to hand a county facility with a $3 billion payback to team owners as their personal piggybank for four decades, fans will get a better place to see games, though current site Sun Life Stadium is far better than ballparks elsewhere that fill up almost every game.
Owners of what is already baseball's most profitable team will add to their income all ticket revenues, naming rights money, advertising money, luxury box money, media payments and virtually everything from non-baseball events as well.
And government will find that it has drained for decades valuable revenue streams that otherwise could have given us projects like a new convention center that actually drive economic growth.
No wonder commissioners held their noses and the mayor gagged. They had every right.
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