Judge's ruling details a stadium deal that's legal but horrid
A ruling that a Marlins stadium wouldn't violate the state constitution, while fair and clearly reasoned, paradoxically shows why the deal must die.
The stadium "serves a paramount public purpose within the meaning of Article VII, Section 10 of the Florida Constitution," Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen ruled, so that narrow objection can't block it.
The Florida Marlins instantly hailed the ruling against auto dealer Norman Braman. But they shouldn't endorse its findings so fast.
The judge ruled last week on just a single count — another awaits — not on whether a stadium is a good idea or a sound investment. In fact, she stated, "the Marlins are getting what amounts to a "sweet deal' that is, put bluntly, not the business of this court."
She couldn't rule on that sweet deal, but the Miami-Dade County Commission must. It's still to vote on four agreements with the Marlins that would let work start. As far as the public knows, county negotiators and the Marlins have yet to draft those documents. For sure, commissioners haven't seen them.
When they do, let them ponder not only taxpayers' half-billion gift to the Marlins but the wisdom of any deal, based on these points in Judge Cohen's 41-page ruling:
nWhile the Marlins are to control construction and pay all cost overruns, "The financial condition of the Marlins is unknown to anyone except the Marlins and [Major League Baseball]."
"The court is mindful of the fact that if stadium construction costs run over, or if the Marlins cannot meet their obligations pursuant to the [Baseball Stadium Agreement], it may be necessary for the county to expend general revenues used to fund essential services to the county in order to make up any shortfalls. Such a contingency... may not be considered by the court."
It should, however, be fully considered by commissioners, especially as stratospheric real estate tax collections shrivel.
"It is undisputed that the county has no idea whether or not the Marlins can satisfy any of their obligations under the [Baseball Stadium Agreement] or whether or not the new stadium will encourage increased attendance and ticket sales."
The county is blindly taking team owners' word that they'll do all they promise and be able to meet financial obligations. Plus, the claim of more ticket sales in a new ballpark is pure speculation.
"Plaintiff argues that the Marlins are getting full use of the stadium rent free. While the evidence appears to support this contention, the court does not find it relevant" how good a deal government hands the team.
"The Marlins will retain all revenues from all team and non-team events, including ticket sales; the sale of broadcast rights; the sale of concessions, memorabilia or other products and services; marketing, advertising or other promotional revenues; suite licenses; stadium naming rights, which could be as valuable as $2 million per year; and any assignment, lease or licensing of the stadium itself."
That covers everything in the public's stadium.
"The evidence presented at the trial established that the county has never performed (nor commissioned) an economic analysis, study or impact analysis with regards to the economic benefits to the community as a result of having a baseball stadium located in Little Havana."
While an earlier county study cited positive impact from a downtown stadium, "significantly, the prior study cautioned against building a stadium on a site not contiguous to the urban core and surrounded by residences such as is the case with the present site."
What little research the county has, in sum, cautions not to build right where a stadium now is to rise. In fact, the Marlins earlier rejected the site for those reasons.
"There are no present plans to develop the area and there is no information as to whether businesses are willing to locate to or invest in the Little Havana area in the event a stadium were built there."
The county's sole economic study is on construction benefits. "The more long term economic benefits on Miami-Dade County are difficult to assess and speculative, at best, since no concrete evidence was offered by the county to assess long term economic impact on the county.... once the stadium is operational, these jobs end."
"The court agrees with the plaintiff that while construction of the stadium will create an employment boost to our recessionary-like local economy, such an effect would endure over a 29-month period only and would necessarily result from any large scale construction project."
The county could use the funds to expand the Miami Beach Convention Center, add a planned venue at Metrozoo or build other visitor-related projects to gain equal impact for 29 months plus vital long-term bang that a ballpark simply doesn't offer.
"The court can make no findings as to whether a baseball stadium will encourage businesses to relocate to Miami as testified to by the Beacon Council, increase jobs long term, promote the image of Miami as a world class city and, thereby, spur tourism, or increase sales tax revenues..."
"There is no evidence in the record that the building of a stadium in Little Havana will increase attendance and, thereby, promote social cohesion. Simply put, no one will know whether a new retractable roof stadium will increase attendance... until it is built."
In other words, every Marlins and county assertion that a stadium would be beneficial is unproven. The judge ruled only that a stadium isn't unconstitutional under a narrow point of public purpose. That's it.
Okay, there's public purpose. But would a stadium achieve it?
The judge's findings show scant evidence that spending a half billion dollars is worth a penny to the community. It's a bad bet.
It leaves the old argument: "Build it and they will come." That was why Homestead built a ballpark nearly two decades ago. And Homestead is still awaiting a tenant.
The judge confines herself to a narrow ruling that won't block the deal: "This court is well aware that more citizens may be opposed to the building of the stadium, even to retain the Marlins in Miami, than in favor of building the stadium. These considerations, however, may not sway this court."
As to the deal itself, she says, "This court cannot judge whether this is a wise or realistic decision or if it will, in fact, ever come to fruition."
The wisdom and public policy issues are out of the judge's court and in the county commission's.
She notes "it is apparent from statements by the commissioners that they were asked to review the materials [in the Baseball Stadium Agreement] and meet with County Manager [George] Burgess the weekend before the meeting [to vote] and had very little opportunity to thoroughly review the materials provided."
They're now to receive four more agreements. They must insist on not days but weeks to review them carefully, for they will certainly alter the deal.
Even commissioners who favor a stadium need the wisdom and courage not to cave in to what the judge calls, conservatively, a "sweet deal."
As Judge Cohen ruled, "if the public and the plaintiff believe that their lawmakers have made imprudent or unwise decisions then they should make their feelings known to their elected officials at the ballot box."