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Miami Commission OK’s Florida Marlins stadium – BY CHARLES RABIN AND JACK DOLAN
Posted on Thu, Mar. 19, 2009
A month of deliberations by Miami commissioners turned into a moment of joy for the Florida Marlins on Thursday, when city officials agreed to help build the team its long-sought new stadium.
Next up: Miami-Dade County, where the 13-member commission will be asked Monday to bankroll the lion’s share of funding for the $634 million stadium and parking complex in Little Havana.
With the county’s blessing there, the mirage is closer to reality: a new 37,000-seat retractable-roof stadium to rise in 2012 for the financially strapped ball club with a history of low payroll and attendance.
In Miami, commissioners Thursday cemented the city’s end of the stadium plan at the old Orange Bowl site. The first vote — approving the stadium’s core contracts — passed by a one-vote margin.
”It’s just like beating the Cubs in Game 6. We still have to come back and play Game 7,” a buoyant Marlins President David Samson said moments after the vote, recalling his team’s storied 2003 playoff run.
The Marlins won Game 7 in a rout, then took the World Series against the New York Yankees.
If Thursday is any indication, Monday at County Hall may not be as easy.
Though the Miami Commission was required to pass three votes, the big one supporting the stadium and parking garage construction plan passed 3-2, with Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones the swing vote. She was on maternity leave during a deadlocked 2-2 February vote.
Joe Sanchez and Angel Gonzalez also voted yes on Thursday, as they had before; Commissioners Tomás Regalado and Marc Sarnoff were once again against.
Two other votes followed. One, a no-bid waiver for $24 million worth of road and utility work, required a supermajority. It passed 4-1, with Sarnoff joining the majority and Regalado the lone holdout. A final vote to approve an interlocal agreement between the city and county passed unanimously.
THE BATTLE LINES
The six-hour battle over spending hundreds of millions of dollars of public money began early in the morning with dueling protests outside of Miami’s scenic City Hall.
Union workers holding Marlins signs shouted about the need for work. Activists in coordination with Liberty City’s Miami Worker’s Center questioned the plan, arguing the jobs would be temporary, and the bed-tax dollars paying for most of the stadium would be better spent elsewhere.
Inside, City Manager Pete Hernandez began the proceedings informing commissioners of changes to the stadium agreement since last month’s meeting.
The Marlins would now contribute $500,000 a year to charity, with $125,000 going to city and county parks programs the first seven years.
More significantly, the team agreed to boost the share of profit Miami and Miami-Dade would split should Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria sell the club within nine years of groundbreaking.
The governments had previously agreed to a scale beginning at 18 percent that lowered each year. The new deal beefs that up to 70 percent the first year, 60 the second, down to 5 percent in year nine, Hernandez explained.
Chamber seats filled up and the line of 73 public speakers stretched out the door. Some were unemployed construction workers who spoke in favor of the stadium.
”I’m not here to ask for a bailout. I’m here to ask for a job,” said Carpenter’s Union Local 79 member Greg Mikenas.
Miami Worker’s Center organizer Hashim Benford countered: “It doesn’t serve the interest of the working people. I’m concerned once the stadium is built, those jobs are gone.”
Following three hours of public input, the commission took control.
Regalado, a stadium critic since the plan was announced more than a year ago, voiced concern over giving away city land, not getting enough public guarantees and the fact that county police — not city — would patrol inside the facility.
”Under this deal city of Miami police would only be able to go to the stadium to use the bathroom,” he said.
Sarnoff focused on the economy, worrying that the $634 million plan could balloon to $1.8 billion or more with interest payments. He also questioned whether the Marlins could meet their commitment to pay $155 million toward construction.
”You have no idea what the Marlins are worth, or aren’t worth,” he said of the team, which previously won a court order to keep its financial books private.
Sanchez, representing Little Havana, said a stadium would mean jobs and economic vitality for a portion of his district badly in need. He said the public money, most coming from tourist hotel taxes, can’t be used for police, fire or social services.
”I don’t look at this as being a Marlins stadium,” Sanchez said. “I look at it as an opportunity.”
Spence-Jones, who had already secured more than $100 million for her Overtown district in a separate vote this month, flexed her swing-vote muscle — speaking for an hour and calling teems of officials to the podium before voting yes.
”Leadership requires sometimes taking bold steps,” Spence-Jones said. “Really what I wanted to do was hear the voices from this room. And I’ve heard them loud and clear.”
The vote means Miami commissioners approved a plan for the county to pledge $297 million in tourist taxes, and another $50 million from a bond referendum, toward stadium construction. The Marlins would spend about $120 million toward construction, and repay the county a $35 million loan. Miami will build the $94 million parking garages.
After Thursday’s approval, applause was somewhat muted, in part because Commission Chair Sanchez often asks the audience to refrain. But mainly, because the decision took so long, supporter greeted the final verdict mostly with relief.
Miami commissioners had been set to vote Feb. 13, but Sarnoff stalled the process by demanding a string of concessions from the Marlins. Sanchez continued the meeting to Thursday.
Immediately after Thursday’s votes, Marlins owner Loria was mobbed by supporters and media.
”We’re making a major private contribution here,” he said, when asked about the major public contribution toward the stadium.
Loria refused to answer a question about whether he’d open the team’s books.
Instead, the owner looked ahead. Perhaps, to Opening Day 2012, when the Miami Marlins could take the field in Little Havana.
”As we look back years from now,” Loria offered, “we’ll realize how good this decision was.”