New uses for old Miami Arena may face competitive bidding
By Paola Iuspa
The Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority is considering using a competitive process to weigh renovation possibilities for the deficit-ridden Miami Arena before voting on a proposal from Zev Buffman to retrofit the venue as an aquatic center.
Board members, who run the 16,000-seat arena, plan to meet Aug. 20 to discuss the next step in looking for proposals to redevelop the arena in Park West, said Miami Commissioner Tomás Regalado, authority chairman. He said the ideal one would be to leave it up to each participating developer to come up with a concept to transform the 13-year-old facility, now losing tenants to the newer American Airlines Arena.
One issue to be addressed is whether renovations will be financed by a developer or taxpayers.
While authority officials said other developers are making offers to buy and redevelop the building into an ice castle, animal and water parks, Mr. Buffman's publicly financed plan has attracted local publicity. He is proposing to build an Olympic-size pool to stage water shows and swimming events. When there are not water-related events scheduled, the pool floor would rise to the ground level as a stage for basketball, indoor soccer and hockey games, concerts and other shows.
About 70% of the building would remain as it is now, Mr. Buffman said.
Under his plan, authority-issued bonds would fund the $28 million project. Mr. Buffman would design, oversee construction, operate and do programming while receiving a management fee.
At a board meeting last week, members asked Mr. Buffman why he was not offering to put any money into the project and instead expected taxpayers to foot the bill. A sports venue developer, Broadway producer and former co-owner of the Miami Heat basketball team, Mr. Buffman responded that, under IRS rules, if he became an investor, the authority would not be able to issue tax-exempt bonds and the current financing package would fall apart.
His financial plan calls for the authority to issue $28 million in tax-exempt bonds, backed by the arena's asset replacement reserve projected at $33 million, which Miami-Dade allocated almost a decade ago for venue repairs and upgrades.
"We are locked in a tax-exempt bond that brings blessings and curses," Mr. Buffman said, citing the decade-old bond series backed by Miami-Dade County's convention development or bed tax.
An additional $3.5 million to serve as a construction downpayment would come from refinancing a portion of the arena's $61.3 million debt service, which is set to expire in 2020.
Maritza Gutierrez, a board member, said the authority should look at other proposals before considering Mr. Buffman's.
"We should not marry the first one that comes along," she said. "I think we should wait and look for an investor or a partner."
Because the arena is city owned, with the authority acting as landlord and operator, and partially maintained by the convention development tax, bidding for the job may be necessary, city attorney Alex Vilarello said.
"It appears some competing process will be required," he said.
Commissioner Regalado said it could be "something similar to what the city did with Flagstone Properties in Watson Island." He was referring to bidding procedures a year ago used to develop the northern tip of the city-owned island. Flagstone won the contract to finance, develop, build and manage two hotels, a marina and shops. The city and Flagstone are now negotiating a lease.
While the authority staff is struggling to attract new events to the arena, various companies seem eager to put their hands on the building and inject new life into it.
Ferey Kian, authority director of finance, said he has two proposals from companies from Japan and Spain. He said both would buy the arena and transform it into a modern entertainment venue.
The Japanese group, Mr. Kian said, wants to make it an ice castle to host snow events and sports such as skateboarding.
The Spanish group is proposing a marine and exotic animal park similar to the one the company owns in Spain, Mr. Kian said. This plan would require the developer to buy land around the arena, he said.
Ripley's Entertainment Inc. - producer of Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum, aquariums in South Carolina and Tennessee, the Ripley's 3-D Moving Theater and the Ripley's Haunted Adventure - also plans to propose an aquarium in the area. City of Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton said Ripley's officials expect to submit a proposal late this month or early September.
Bob Masterson, president of Orlando-based Ripley Entertainment, could not be reached for comment.
The arena has been running in the red since the NBA's Miami Heat and NHL's Florida Panthers moved to new homes. Now, the University of Miami basketball team will stop using the arena in January and Feld Entertainment, producers of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Disney On Ice, announced last week they are also moving their shows to the American Airlines Arena.
James Jenkins, authority executive director, said he hopes to boost revenues this year at the old Miami Arena with proceeds from Latin pop concerts.