Though Schulman did not outline any particular future renovations, he made a point of noting that the arena has paid for about $40 million in upgrades over the years.
“The building’s almost 15 years old — we’re about halfway through the life of the building,” he said. “We plan to continue to keep it as a first-class facility, whatever that means, and keep investing in it.”
In a searing audit earlier this year, the county’s inspector general questioned $3.3 million the arena spent on capital improvements, saying the money should have gone toward negating team losses instead. Inspector General Christopher Mazzella also criticized various arena expenditures, including $12,300 in political contributions and $614,000 on lobbyists such as Lopez.
In its final response to the audit filed late last month, the county’s internal services department disagreed with Mazzella and said it would not seek to recoup any of that money, calling the capital improvements and the expenditures “customary” and “legitimate” business expenses.
The county administration and Basketball Properties Ltd., the Heat’s arena-operating arm, did agree to address 21 other inspector general recommendations aimed at bolstering Miami-Dade’s oversight of the arena management agreement.
The audit did not examine other aspects of the county’s deal with the team, including a 4.5-acre waterfront property behind the arena that the Heat had pledged to turn into a soccer park and baywalk. The promise came in the lead-up to a failed 1996 countywide referendum that gave voters a chance to deny construction of the arena.
The county, however, never required the team to commit to the park proposal. The Heat, which had gained control of the land as part of the arena deal, lost its rights to the property in 2004, after several development schemes failed to materialize.
But that doesn’t mean the Heat broke their promise to voters, the team’s Schulman said.
“We have more than delivered our end of the bargain here,” he said.
Schulman also said he’s not worried that his team will be tainted by public backlash against the Miami Marlins, which sold a slew of major players this month — a mere seven months after opening a new Little Havana ballpark funded mostly with public dollars. The Miami Dolphins have also expressed interest in public funding for a partial roof at the Sun Life football stadium in Miami Gardens.
In what could be a promising sign for the Heat, voters approved a referendum earlier this month allowing Sony Open tennis tournament organizers to begin talks with the county to extend the tournament’s lease and privately fund major upgrades to the Crandon Park tennis center in Key Biscayne.
To the Heat, the bigger picture is not what the arena pays Miami-Dade but the team’s broader contribution to the local economy. An economic-impact study commissioned by the team says the Heat and arena bring more than $1.4 billion and more than 21,000 jobs to the economy each year.
The study, by the Coral Gables-based Washington Economics Group, took into account not only $439 million in direct benefits, such as the team’s operating expenses and spending by out-of-town teams and visitors, but also “externalities” — intangible benefits “attributable to the presence of a successful sports franchise.” Those spillover effects included promoting Miami internationally, the team’s charitable contributions and building “civic pride.”
“You can’t overestimate what we’ve done,” Schulman said.