Hialeah and baseball are a good fit if team opens its wallet
By Michael Lewis
Finally, a good site for a baseball stadium is in play as Marlins officials and Hialeah leaders talk this week. Every aspect appeals more than other choices.
We'll discuss the deal breaker later. First, look at the pluses.
South Florida fans could attend in Hialeah, but not in spots the team also is visiting such as Las Vegas, Charlotte and Portland, OR. Keeping baseball here, in other words, is desirable.
Hialeah is a far better choice than building beside the team's present home at Dolphins Stadium. The landowner there is stadium owner H. Wayne Huizenga, who drives a harder bargain than public officials ever dreamed of. The Marlins would need to beg for even more public cash if they had to deal with him.
Of course, any Hialeah site would be better than the deal that just struck out beside the Orange Bowl. Miami City Manager Joe Arriola is right up there with Mr. Huizenga in making a deal that wouldn't give away the store, and little love is lost between him and Marlins officials. Besides, parking and access to the congested area would have been a nightmare.
Hialeah, unlike Miami, doesn't get the attention it merits. The blue-collar, inland city flies well below the radar as Florida's fifth-largest in population at 226,000 in the 2000 census, well ahead of No. 6 Orlando and No. 7 Fort Lauderdale. With racing dead, Hialeah has no name recognition. International baseball telecasts from Hialeah would raise visibility.
With visibility comes development. Miami wouldn't have felt much of an economic jolt by building at the Orange Bowl, but businesses and restaurants catering to fans would soon surround a Hialeah stadium.
One of three Hialeah sites under discussion is former horse track Hialeah Park, whose attractive grandstand is historically protected. Working it into a stadium's design might win historic-structure funds from government.
On the other hand, if the track's owner holds out for an expansion of gambling, the Marlins would lose out. Major League Baseball rightly steers clear of gambling.
Hialeah offers a desirable hometown. The Marlins always thought a Cuban-American populace would be a natural draw, and Hialeah is all of that. Blue-collar enthusiasts make a good baseball market.
Some express concern that Hialeah would be too far from Broward and Palm Beach counties. Surveys show those counties provide more Marlins customers than home-county Miami-Dade.
But Hialeah is easier to reach than the Orange Bowl site, where the Marlins were perfectly willing to play if government would build a stadium and hand them almost all the revenues for little investment on their part.
Hialeah's biggest advantage is that Tri-Rail and Metrorail link there. With enough bus shuttles to a stadium, fans would need never drive to Hialeah at all. Other potential local sites lack that vital mass transit. South Florida's intensifying traffic requires a stadium near rail links.
So with all those advantages, what's the deal breaker?
Money. The Marlins aren't willing to put serious cash into a ballpark whose true cost is likely to hit $500 million.
What owners pledged in the now-dead Miami deal was to pay rent for a third of a century plus add $30 million that was to come from who knew where.
The Marlins have been willing to lease at low rent if they get almost all the revenues from a stadium built with tax money. County government has pledged $138 million from tourist and sports-franchise taxes, and the City of Miami was willing to kick in $28 million in tourist-development tax receipts and $32 million to build parking - but not enough to pay for the whole deal. The gap was $45 million when that deal was benched.
The only reason the Marlins are looking at all is that they have a terrible deal with Mr. Huizenga, who keeps the lion's share of income. The Marlins want ticket revenues, parking revenues, advertising revenues, stadium naming revenues and sponsorship revenues. In turn, they won't pay in advance more than about a year's worth of those revenues. They want taxpayers to pay the rest of the cost of building them a covered stadium from which they alone would benefit.
Rent isn't a capital contribution. When a business pays low rent and wants to collect the revenues from government's investment, it's actually paying negative rent - the team is being paid to stay here.
That's what the Marlins have been offered. They just want to be paid more - a larger government investment whose returns would go not to taxpayers but to team owners, about $25 million per year.
That's been the sticking point. And unless Hialeah is a lot richer or more foolish than the City of Miami, it will continue to be the sticking point.
While a Hialeah home for the Marlins would be desirable from everyone's standpoint, it would only make sense for taxpayers if the Marlins and not city residents opened their wallets. Thus far, the Marlins have been unwilling to pay to play.