Time-out lets city do right thing at Miami Marine Stadium
Written by Michael Lewis on November 26, 2014
Give credit where it’s due: Miami’s commission was on target when it sidetracked a revival of Miami Marine Stadium. The deal came out of the blue, changed too fast and had far too many questionable loose ends.
The city for so long has been a poor steward of its lands that we might have expected a repeat last week, with commissioners rushing into something all of us would soon regret. Wisely, they made sure it didn’t happen again.
Instead, City Manager Daniel Alfonso is to report Jan. 8 on the best course for the stadium site. Even that seems too fast. Here’s why.
Issues surrounding last week’s deal to restore and develop around Miami Marine Stadium are varied. It’s not one glitch but many, all potentially major.
For one, the scope ballooned. Just four years ago costs for basic restoration were put at $5.5 million to $8.5 million. The plan commissioners were to vote on last week was for $121 million, including added bells and whistles. How did it get so big so fast?
On the other hand, commissioners rightly questioned revenue projections fronted by non-profit Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, to which the city 16 months ago handed the right to revive the stadium. In a business plan anything works on paper if you estimate revenues high enough. What counts is how realistic projections are. Commissioners felt they missed the mark.
You don’t have to dig deep to agree. Just look at the $1 million a year planned for stadium naming rights. Neither the Miami Marlins nor the Miami Dolphins have sold rights at their stadiums at all. How would a stadium without a big-name tenant do it?
Commissioners also noted that the architect co-founders of the non-profit Friends would collect millions in architecture fees at 4% of hard costs on the $121 million project. The two think they’re entitled, but generally non-profits’ volunteers don’t get a cent.
Commissioners also were concerned about persons involved in the for-profit arm of the project that the Friends crafted. One supposedly dropped out, and the person in charge of the money had just gone through his own bankruptcy. The city hadn’t picked these folks – the Friends had.
The deal’s now-or-never status was a major concern. It’s a tactic in government deals to always face a looming insurmountable deadline. In this case it was moving the Miami International Boat Show to the site. The city shouldn’t put up with that rush, and it didn’t.
Mushrooming scope was a huge red flag. From simply repairing a stadium on Virginia Key that hadn’t been used in decades because the city never fixed it, the project plopped on the table added a 125,000-square-foot exposition center, 280-slip drydock, restaurants, retail stores and more.
The catalyst supposedly was the boat show’s move from the Miami Beach Convention Center, where a revamp will force it out for 2016 and 2017. The show was to move to the marine stadium, but would it stay more than two years? A departure would torpedo the plan’s success.
Given those issues and more, including anemic fundraising by the Friends, the commission showed wisdom in calling time out for study. The month and a half, however, isn’t enough. Now that the city is on the right path it mustn’t revert to mistakes that began decades ago in poor stewardship of assets.
The commission’s criteria at the stadium should include meeting the highest public interest, economic viability and long-term sustainability. Whether the city must profit is a commission decision but unquestionably, whether via a lease, profits or taxes, sustainability will be vital.
Given these criteria, getting to the starting gate involves vital steps.
First, Miami needs impartial experts. Hire a national consultant with nothing to gain but its fee to detail what’s feasible on the site from national, global and local players. A national leisure consultant would have far better contacts than volunteers whom the city put in charge of deciding.
After the consultant reports, the city must set goals. Maybe it will rule out a use that pays most in favor of one that assuages Key Biscayne residents who will daily drive past the stadium. That’s a commission call, not a consultant’s.
Complicating the choice will be Mayor Tomás Regalado’s campaign pledge to restore the stadium. Will restoration mesh with the highest use? A city hall decision should come after the consultant’s report, so that the city has all the facts on which to act.
After that, voters should decide. Law might not require a vote, but officials don’t want to replicate the Marlins stadium fiasco that came with no public vote and the firestorm that followed.
The referendum should create a trust to oversee the stadium in perpetuity. The marine stadium crumbled because nobody was paying attention. A trust would keep watch. It should also oversee other city assets, but that’s another story.
Finally, whatever the city or trust chooses to do, the deal must be bid competitively and advertised locally and nationally. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
Commissioners were wise to call time out. When the game begins again, they should show the wisdom to go step by step from consultant all the way through to broad public bidding and finally prove that a city hall deal can actually serve residents well.