Marine stadium’s fate must rest on a business plan, not faith
Written by Michael Lewis on November 29, 2016
Now that Miami commissioners have voted to borrow $45 million to restore Miami Marine Stadium, where does faith in the stadium’s ability to fund its own future end and guaranteed cash start?
Faith is indeed an asset, but money in the bank is golden.
Assessing the fate of the decayed stadium on Virginia Key nearly seven years ago we wrote, “The one mantra to avoid is ‘Rebuild it and they will come.’ A great asset may never find a great use without solid plans.”
So it was déjà vu in reverse when county Commissioner Xavier Suarez told the city commission Nov. 17, “Please, don’t worry about operations there. If you build it, they will come.”
Mr. Suarez is certainly a man of faith. He could be right. Profitable stadium uses just might tumble out of the sky.
But despite his admonition, we do worry. A solid game plan for that stadium is vital before, not after, the city issues $45 million in bonds that could leave taxpayers on the hook for $80 million or more, depending on how bonds are structured.
That plan should start with the stadium’s purpose. If it’s to be just a landmark, the city will have to fund maintenance and operations. If it’s to host boat races as it once did, structural work will have to differ from use for concerts or for meetings and conventions. Right now the city is open to anything, meaning no plan.
Restoration costs will depend on chosen uses. Seven years ago the aim was $11 million. Now the city is putting in $45 million and the county $3 million but still no firm budget. A budget rests on the stadium’s purpose.
Business plans also must look beyond purpose at who the users themselves will be. The most frequent use cited is boat races, but who would run them under what terms?
Remember, although Hurricane Andrew finally closed the stadium in 1992, in the five years before that not one boat race was run there and the city had to spend millions of taxpayer funds to keep the site up. To hold races, promoters have to find them profitable, and they didn’t. What has changed to make them profitable now?
The same concern applies to concerts and performances. There’s no shortage of venues here, all trying to book events profitably.
When the marine stadium was last open the Arsht Center’s two buildings didn’t exist, the New World Center on Miami Beach didn’t exist, Marlins Park didn’t exist, the gambling venues with their performance halls didn’t exist, AmericanAirlines Arena didn’t exist, BB&T Center didn’t exist and a soccer stadium with performances wasn’t even dreamed of.
We have a whole lot of glitz we never had. How will a stadium’s water view overcome all of that?
One thing is certain: the city doesn’t have the expertise to battle with those venues. That’s a job for professionals, either an outside firm that would control the city’s facility for its own profit or new city employees with proper experience.
Marketing has also changed. The digital world requires new skills in everything from social media to ticketing. None of that will be free, either.
Whatever paths the city takes, it must overcome a long pattern of letting valued facilities crumble when operating and maintenance funds run dry. If the stadium ran at a loss, who would pay how much to keep it from crumbling again? Remember, before the hurricane the city spent millions a year on upkeep there.
Think of the Mildred and Claude Pepper Fountain in Bayfront Park, an expensive centerpiece that the city couldn’t afford to operate once it was built.
Think of the historic Miami Circle, purchased for almost $27 million by the state but never funded to actually be seen. It’s now buried for protection.
Think of the Olympia Theater at the Gusman, which the city for years tried to close because it couldn’t fund operating losses. It was finally handed to a foundation to control.
Think of the old Orange Bowl, which was patched and patched because the city could never afford real restoration. Finally, the city just tore it down – and it was every bit as historic as the marine stadium.
If there’s no guaranteed operating funding for the marine stadium and it can’t profit in a competitive environment, it could again be abandoned to decay, with taxpayers still on the hook for the restoration bonds.
We go along with Mayor Tomás Regalado, who years ago recommended setting up a foundation to keep up the marine stadium as a city asset. A guaranteed revenue stream from the city could fuel the foundation along with outside sources. Again, however, that recommendation needs to become reality before, not after, taxpayers are on the hook to repay bonds.
A marine stadium doesn’t have to turn a profit to merit restoration. But it does have to have a funding source in perpetuity or restoration will be wasted.
Now, during a property tax boom, is probably the time to restore the stadium if it’s a top priority – and the mayor made it his top priority when he was first elected. In his last year in office he can keep that pledge.
But rather than a “build it and they will come” faith, commissioners should heed long-time stadium restoration leader Don Worth, who told them “We need a business plan – it will not rent itself.”
Nor, he might have added, will it market itself, operate itself, maintain itself or – perhaps – fund itself. The city needs to clarify its plans – in public.
For example, the bonding resolution notes that a “welcome center” and a “museum complex” are to rise on the stadium site. Are those code names for year-around convention and events facilities with the stadium as a mere appurtenance, much as animal attractions at the city-owned Jungle Island became the backdrop for a banquet and meeting center?
If so, that’s the financial key to the business plan that Mr. Worth calls for – as well as a major city commission debate topic in the open, not in code.
We have faith in city hall, but taxpayers still deserve to see how that golden backup money will end up in the bank and not on their future tax bills.