After two fine waterfront showings, make it a triple feature
By Michael Lewis
It's been so easy for so long to justly criticize Miami's government for fumbling away assets that it's hard to realize that in quick succession last week the city made two tough choices and did vital things right.
First, it told Jungle Island to get lost rather than hand owners valuable city acreage and forgive millions in debts.
Next, it threw out bids for two city waterfront concessions in Coconut Grove and started over rather than accept questionable deals.
The get-tough stance is a rarity for a city that has for decades virtually given away waterfront leases to well-connected or shaky operators who promise the moon but deliver little to the city.
That's not to limit bad city deals to waterfront. The city was complicit in Marlins Park, handing over the Orange Bowl site plus about $100 million, though the larger culprit was Miami-Dade County, which got not a dime's value in return for almost $3 billion. At least the city gets parking fees.
But it's primarily along its waterfront that the city has been fumbling away assets for years.
The problem isn't just money. Not receiving a big cash return can sometimes be OK, if that's the plan from the outset, because benefits to taxpayers could make city action worthwhile.
After all, government isn't a business, seeking only profit. It's supposed to serve residents while being a good steward of their assets — including their land.
Last week, stewardship took the welcome form of a mayor and commission digging in collective heels as Jungle Island tried to whipsaw them to hand over more land for 99 years, extend a bad lease for another 50 years and forgive millions in debts with the threat of not paying $2 million that'll soon be due.
The city stood firm, however, forcing Jungle Island to promise the next payment while trying to figure out a new way to snooker the city out of free land yet avoid paying as much as possible of what's still owed.
The city would do well to maintain its firm stance, give away nothing more and bill Jungle Island owners now for all that's due. If Jungle Island owners pay promptly, keep them as good tenants through the present lease and hope future city officials choose the highest possible use for the land in 49 years. Otherwise, foreclose and put the land to better use now.
In the case of leases for sites for two restaurants and a marina in Coconut Grove, commissioners also properly returned to the drawing board. One site drew just one bid, meaning city bid specifications for a prime location weren't good enough to lure any of hundreds of other possible bidders — or other possible uses.
In the case of the other site, the operator of Scotty's Landing, who's trying to hang onto the popular site, reportedly has never paid property taxes in 35 years there, which is cause for more than mere concern. The other leading candidate also deserves more thorough review, as does the bidding process itself.
Again, maximum return to fill city budget holes shouldn't be the prime aim with these or any leases. Quick cash is less vital than the long-term benefit — monetary or not — that taxpayers gain from the assets.
This brings us to a third site the city discussed last week: the Coconut Grove Convention Center, now leased as a studio and headquarters for popular USA Network series Burn Notice.
The community reaps broad benefit as a popular series showcases Miami to the world, a benefit that far exceeds the site's minuscule rent. Yet commissioners talked of knocking down the center and evicting Burn Notice at the end of this season's taping.
That would be OK were the city certain there'd be no seventh season for the show. At this point, however, nobody knows.
If the city does send an eviction notice to Burn Notice, it will also send a strong negative signal to the film industry, which this community is trying so hard to lure that Miami has bought an old building to turn into a studio.
The future use targeted for the Grove center is parkland, in the long run more suitable there than a film hub. But it's terrible public policy to force that switch now and burn the film industry in the process.
Few in the industry think the city's proposed studio in an old school board site will work, for multiple reasons. Evicting Burn Notice isn't the way to force producers to move to a new city hub and make a shaky studio plan succeed.
Fortunately, there's ample time for the city to welcome Burn Notice again in the Grove. City commissioners should lay the welcome mat out convincingly.
Rather than try to force use of their planned studio by evicting their key industry asset, commissioners should build on their newly improved stewardship at two waterfront sites and make it a triple feature.
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