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Front Page » Opinion » No Shock If Stadium Jobs Vow Was Mere Window Dressing

No Shock If Stadium Jobs Vow Was Mere Window Dressing

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Written by on January 7, 2010

By Michael Lewis
No earthly reason for surprise if the Florida Marlins miss local jobs goals in building a stadium. The shock will be if they hit them.

Well motivated but quixotic is Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado’s call to probe the jobs effort, the key to the use of the public’s $3 billion during a painful recession.

Like promises in this giveaway, this probe is going nowhere — if only because voluminous contracts don’t require anyone to hit the target.

That’s just one loophole in an ill-conceived deal in which county and city officials left the public vulnerable in contracts that should have been airtight.

But it’s the first big test of how well team owners meet pledges when contracts set no penalty for failure.

Mayor Regalado pointed to the yardstick that 50% in construction jobs live in Miami-Dade and of that 20% live in Miami. He asked the county’s inspector general to investigate because only 28% of those whom two subcontractors hired — 73 of the 259 — are in county.

Not only is the 50% aim in the contract, but at the final stadium vote Marlins President David Samson said he’d exceed the minimum.

"We are trying to get as close to 100% as possible," he said.

On Tuesday, the county said hiring had gone way beyond 28% local — up to 63%, taking into account not just the two subcontractors but all jobs. Of the 572 people working on the site in November, the county said, 363 live in the county, and of those 28% live in Miami.

If that’s so, 93% of all workers for other than the two subcontractors live in the county.

Let’s hope 63% and not 28% becomes a benchmark for how many tries, wishes, promises, pledges, hopes, dreams, aims and aspirations for the stadium become reality.

And that’s if we’re lucky, because it doesn’t cost the Marlins a penny extra to hire locally. Watch vows crumble when team funds are at issue.

Any local jobs gap should surprise no one, because the contract doesn’t penalize failure.

When Miami commissioners questioned why the target wasn’t a rule but only an "aspiration," with no penalties attached, City Attorney Julie Bru said "narrowly tailoring it as such as a goal will withstand any legal challenge."

Sure, but also insure there’s no need to pay any heed to it.

She might have explained that the target was mere window dressing so commissioners could say they had put it into a contract even though impact was nil. That’s nearer reality.

Some pushed to make jobs ratios binding. After meeting with Mr. Samson on Dec. 29, 2008, county Commissioner Natacha Seijas wrote a sharp note to County Manager George Burgess:

"After eight years of trying to put this deal together, the Marlins have not developed any meaningful relationships with our local workforce. This fact alone I find troubling. Samson indicated that the general contractor will comply with the terms of the contract, but was not able to recall what percentage of the work would be offered to local subcontractors and workers….

"I trust the county contract will impose… subcontracting goals on the Marlins general contractor."

Nonetheless, she voted for the deal.

Local jobs were leverage in pushing the public’s $3 billion to the stadium, which the county owns but the Marlins are building, control and profit from.

Thousands of local construction jobs — that was the one local benefit in an outright giveaway.

County Mayor Carlos Alvarez constantly touted 3,000 jobs to fight recession in vigorously supporting a stadium — one of the few strong stands by a strong mayor in name only.

He should have known better — both in vastly overestimating jobs and giving credence to the team’s word.

Writing about building stadiums the month before final votes, veteran television commentator Ike Seamans put it this way:

"There have been so many lies, tall tales and chicanery perpetrated about their alleged benefits, it boggles the mind of everyone except those who promote them. The most egregious current myth is the one spouted by Mayors Carlos Alvarez and Manny Diaz: A new stadium means "thousands of jobs for Miami.’

"Gentlemen, please. This is Stadium/Arena Construction 101. There is no empirical evidence that any stadium in this country has created "thousands of jobs.’ Hundreds, yes, but not thousands."

At 572 people on the job in November, Mr. Seamans was right on target.

In all cases he cited, many or most workers weren’t local, including the Sunrise arena for the Florida Panthers, the new Washington, DC, baseball stadium and the new Yankee Stadium — where 80% of Bronx applicants were found unqualified and a large percentage hired were "construction nomads… who roam the nation building stadiums and arenas."

Why would a Marlins’ stadium differ, despite Mr. Samson’s vow to come near 100% local jobs as even his construction team cited need for specialized out-of-town crews?

So when the Marlins held a widely touted pre-contract fair for workers and took names of hundreds of desperate people — many of whom had never done a day’s construction work — how much was window dressing?

In one-on-one meetings with commissioners, stadium promises were made in secret. But some pledges came in public.

Team owner Jeffrey Loria told county commissioners he had no intent to sell after a deal that would commit the public’s billions, so no need to add safeguards. Commissioners bought it on less than a handshake.

County Commissioner Javier Souto sought Marlins money for parks to sweeten a deal. Mr. Samson said sure, but he loves parks so no need to put it in writing. Commissioners bought that, too.

Other elements, like the local jobs, entered the contract with no penalty for failure.

Commissioner Seijas in her memo to Mr. Burgess asked that the stadium meet the Leadership Energy and Environmental Design silver standard for environmental efficiency. She said Mr. Samson "was dismissive of the policy, indicating there is no proof that energy efficiency and conservation measures are economically beneficial."

Eventually, certification was put into the contract but no penalty specified. Will this become part of the stadium’s success rate or its failure quotient?

The Marlins have another jobs aim to meet.

In March, just before the stadium vote, the team signed an accord with the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to "use every reasonable effort" to invest at least at least 15% of its contribution to the project with African-American owned businesses.

That non-binding aspiration wasn’t put into the contract. But Mr. Samson said the Marlins would meet it because "It’s the right thing to do. And we want to do it."

Just as the team wanted to approach 100% local construction hiring. Will it turn out to be more window dressing?

Not all stadium goals will fail. As we reported last week, an Urban Youth Baseball Academy cog in the deal chugs ahead in Hialeah. But Major League Baseball, not the team, funds that $3 million effort.

A contract, no matter its provisions, is only as good as those who sign. Goodwill cannot be ensured by pages of guarantees if it’s lacking to begin with.

And without hope of enforcing even firmly documented provisions, a contract just adds window dressing. No way even if the Marlins default on key elements will anyone shut down Major League Baseball here.

Given that, once construction began the Marlins got free rein with our money. Any hiring gap is just the first of budding problems.

So why didn’t government heed signs everyone saw? Commissioner Seijas documented some, others did too. But, in the end, two commissions bought a deal where even their own top concerns lingered.

Wheeling and dealing is never public. Not being inside the one-on-one meetings between officials and the Marlins, we’ll never know just why a terrible deal passed.

In the stadium case, Mayor Regalado is blameless. As commissioner, he voted no. He’s asking the Marlins to comply on local jobs based not on contract but because the team and the community are partners.

But he’s too late. Aspirations to hire aren’t binding, the inspector general can’t force the Marlins to hire anyone and out-of-towners already hold many jobs the Marlins promised local residents "as close to 100% as possible."

Besides, we’re dealing with the Marlins. Knowing that, there’s no earthly reason for surprise.